Paranoid about state surveillance? Here’s the FD Guide to living in the age of snoops

Sriram Sharma December 12, 2017 12 min

The US does it, so does China. Ever since Edward Snowden’s revelations back in 2013, which exposed the extent of the US’s global surveillance apparatus, the public has been fairly clued into the extent of mass surveillance. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to worry that India does it (or wants to), too, especially with the high decibel campaigns by banks, telecom service providers and others to have Indians link Aadhaar, the unique citizen ID, to multiple services.

If you want a dystopian picture of the future of surveillance, look no further than China, considered the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the third year in a row, according to the new Freedom House, a US-based NGO that conducts research and analysis on the internet. With a score of 87/100 (higher is worse), the Chinese state is renowned for its Great Firewall, which filters access to the wider internet. “Digital activism has declined amid growing legal and technical restrictions as well as heavy prison sentences against prominent civil society figures,” the latest Freedom House report notes.

India is rated “Partly Free” with a score of 41/100 (lower is better) in Freedom House’s 2017 report on internet freedom

While it’s a long way away from China, India scores 41/100 on Internet Freedom in 2017 but is still considered only ‘partly free’ owing to blocking of internet and telecom service providers in Kashmir and detainment of citizens for expressing their views online. The India report from Freedom House highlights Aadhaar’s mandatory linking for a wide range of schemes and records concerns regarding its privacy and security implications.

In this guide, we take a look at the why, what and how of India’s surveillance apparatus, the legal provisions in the Indian constitution that enables them, ask domain experts to provide us with tips on living in an age of state surveillance. We also take a look at a variety of widely used tools and apps that help you countering state surveillance or tracking of any kind.

Know your Big Brother: India’s State Surveillance Programs

Right to privacy organisation Privacy International has a detailed dossier on the state of privacy in India, which examines India’s surveillance schemes, laws around interception and access, and central intelligence agencies that carry out surveillance. Apart from the state police and the army, surveillance is carried out at least 16 different intelligence agencies, it notes.

The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) and Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) have done extensive research in the past on India’s surveillance apparatus. Earlier this year, CIS reported on the various programs and tech infrastructure behind India’s surveillance state: these include Central Monitoring System (CMS), National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), Network Traffic Analysis System (NETRA), etc. An earlier CIS report highlights a boom in surveillance tech in India following the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai.

Based on an RTI (Right to Information) filing, SFLC’s 2014 report on India’s Surveillance State reveals that around 7,500 to 9,000 telephone interception orders are issued by the central government alone each month. State surveillance of citizens’ private communications is authorised by laws that let them monitor phone calls, texts, e-mails and Internet activity on a number of broadly worded grounds such as such as ‘security of the state’, ‘defence of India’, and ‘public safety’.

The Government of India is also known to said to work with private third parties, some of which go so far as to infect target devices using malicious software to extract information on the subject. A 2013 Citizen Lab report titled ‘The Commercialisation of Digital Spying’ found command and control servers (used to control the host system) for FinFisher (a remote computer monitoring software suite) in India. A Wikileaks expose in 2015 dumped over a million emails belonging to Italian surveillance malware vendor HackingTeam. The emails revealed how India’s top intelligence agencies and the government expressed interest in buying Hacking Team’s malware interception tools.

Surveillance software vendor Hacking Team makes no bones about what it does on its website.

Fears of an Aadhaar Surveillance State

Thejesh G N, an infoactivist wrote in FactorDaily about Hyderabad’s surveillance hub, which wants to collect all manner of details. Aadhaar is one of the primary keys to matching profiles with external data sources, he notes.

A look at data points gathered by Hyderabad’s Integrated Information Hub

“The end product shows on a map where you live, what you consume, did you take PDS, move to some other place, your mobile number, gender… there’s a lot of data in the hands of the very lowest level of government, which doesn’t have any protection as by a parliamentary committee or anything like that. It’s run by bureaucrats, so that has huge implications,” he says. “If you see Citizen Four (a 2014 documentary about Edward Snowden), it shows a similar system, where you enter one’s SSN, and it shows everything you have done, and are planning to do. We are building the same system…Governments change, today we might have a good government, tomorrow we might have the worst possible government on the planet.”

Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director of CIS says he doesn’t regard Aadhaar as a surveillance project. “I see Aadhaar as something that can facilitate surveillance, but by and of itself, it isn’t surveillance,” he says, adding that it does so in a non-consensual manner. “By having Aadhaar numbers across multiple databases, you make surveillance easier. But you need to tie it up to a surveillance system. For instance, Aadhaar without NATGRID isn’t surveillance, but Aadhaar with NATGRID can be helpful for surveillance.” NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid) was first proposed in late 2009 following 26/11 attacks by the Union Home Minister, to enhance India’s counter-terror capabilities. It links 21 citizen databases for access to intelligence/enforcement agencies.

Ongrid’s website earlier had this visualisation depicting its verification service, which made privacy advocates cringe.  Source: Twitter.

We discussed some worst-case scenarios around the commercial use of Aadhaar and India Stack companies with Thejesh. “Let’s say there’s a screening company and they have your Aadhaar ID. They will send it to Airtel, or Vodafone, and ask for a list of all the websites you have viewed. Maybe you’ve watched porn or something, at some point in your life, and that could hurt your employment,” he says.

Curbing your data exhaust

The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) has published a number of useful articles and resources for countering internet surveillance. Recommendations include using end-to-end encryption through tools such as  OTR (a messaging protocol available on Adium), PGP (to exchange secure emails), and Signal (messenger).

Other useful tips:

Use VPNs

VPNs (virtual private networks) use encryption protocols and secure tunneling techniques to keep your internet activity impervious to snooping. With a VPN, you can bypass ISP restrictions on blocked websites or access services (Spotify) not available in your country, making it appear that you are browsing from another part of the world. Keep in mind that you can still be outed by your VPN provider, so it’s important to choose one that respects your privacy. There are hundreds of VPN service providers to choose from, That One Privacy Guy maintains a detailed comparison chart of over a hundred VPN providers, with details on jurisdiction, price, ethics, logging policies, VPN protocols supported, and more. Out of these, the country that the VPN provider is based in is a key filter: you don’t want to choose a VPN service based out of the ‘14 eyes‘, as they are known to do mass surveillance.

Use TOR

Tor, an acronym for ‘The Onion Router’, is a free app that lets you anonymise your online communication by directing a web browser’s traffic through a volunteer-run network of thousands of servers. It is funded by the US-based National Science Foundation, Mozilla, and Open Technology Fund, among others. Tor is available for download on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android.

Browsing on Tor can be far slower than a regular web browser, but it keeps you anonymous.

Encrypt your storage

It’s now a default feature on your phone, or computer, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make use of it. To check if it is turned on in Windows 10, Go to Settings > System > About, and look for a “Device encryption” setting at the bottom of the About tab. Keep in mind that you need to sign into Windows with a Microsoft account to enable this setting, so it’s likely that the NSA or FBI might be able to bypass it.

On a Mac, you turn on full-disk encryption through FileVault, accessible in > System Preferences > Security & Privacy.

On an iPhone, data protection is enabled once you set up a passcode on your device.

Android 5.0 and above devices support full-disk encryption. If it isn’t turned on by default on your device, you can turn on encryption under the Security menu.

Sensitive documents can also be encrypted using TrueCrypt. Though you must keep in mind that key disclosure laws apply in India, under the Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, which states that there’s a seven-year prison sentence for failing to assist the central and state governments in decrypting information on a computer resource.

Use an air-gapped PC

An air-gapped PC is one that is not connected to the internet or to any computers that are connected to the internet. Air-gapped PCs are typically used when handling critical infrastructure, and this is an extreme measure one can take when working with sensitive data that you don’t want to be leaked.

Use HTTPS everywhere

HTTPS Everywhere offers plugins for Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, and turns every link you open or key in, to a secure version of the HTTP protocol, which is encrypted by Transport Layer Security (TLS). The tool protects you from eavesdropping or tampering with the site you are visiting, but only works on sites that support HTTPS. Keep in mind that this tool won’t conceal the sites you have accessed from eavesdroppers but it won’t reveal the specific URL that you visited.

Turn on Advanced Protection in Gmail

If you trust Gmail with your data, take the relationship to the next level with Advanced Protection, which safeguards your account against phishing attacks, limits access to trusted apps, and adds extra verification features to block fraudulent account access. You will need a Bluetooth key and a USB key to turn this feature on.

Google recently announced its Advanced Protection feature, for high risk targets

Some other don’ts

  • Don’t leave any cameras open. Tape them up if you are a potential surveillance target.
  • Don’t use freemium apps, which trade in your privacy. A recent example of a worst-case scenario.
  • Don’t send any data via free email services that you would like to keep private.
  • Don’t use Google or Facebook, as Snowden says, if you value your privacy. Don’t take our word for it.

As for Aadhaar, Thejesh says that there isn’t much one can do as it is forcibly linked to many essential services. He recommends using different email ids for official work and unofficial work. “Use one email ID for Aadhaar and mobile related accounts, and use the other one for regular communication. It separates the accounts from surveillance and adds a layer of security,” he says. “Don’t use Aadhaar until is necessary. If you use Aadhaar and you are not in a mood to resist everything, then don’t use it where it is not required. Don’t use it like a regular address proof,” he adds.

If you are already an Aadhaar holder, it makes sense to use the biometric locking system provided by UIDAI on its website to protect against identity theft and unauthorised access. The biometric locking feature sends an OTP code to your registered mobile number to unlock or disable the locking system.

If someone is concerned about surveillance, CIS’s Prakash recommends not having a cell phone. “The cellphone is the single largest means of data gathering about you,” he says.

Surveillance can take many forms: it can be physical or off-the-air surveillance (an interception technique used to snoop on phone calls), he points out.

A CCTV camera fitted on top of a Hyderabad Police vehicle

Surveillance is not always bad: medical surveillance, for instance, an entire field around the spread of diseases, is necessary, Prakash clarifies. “Even state surveillance for national security purposes is absolutely necessary. A nation-state can’t survive without surveillance so I am quite clear that those who oppose all forms of surveillance are opposing all kinds of rights – because you can’t have rights without security. And indeed, individual security is a human right guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Without security of the person, you can’t have the right to freedom of speech, you can’t enjoy the right to privacy… If you’re in a state of war or in a state of terror, then you can’t enjoy rights – so clearly for me, surveillance is necessary,” he says.

That said, surveillance in India is highly problematic as the laws and the democratic framework for surveillance is very weak, and enforcement of that framework is even worse, Prakash adds. “One of the best ways of countering surveillance, I would suggest, is to actually demand a democratic framework for surveillance in India. Demand that your MLA and MP take up this issue at the state and central level… and that we have a democratic framework for both our intelligence agencies and for all the surveillance that is conducted by the state in India,” he says.

He calls everything else – “the technological stuff, using anonymising networks, end-to-end encryption” – a second order issue. “It can help you as an individual, but it doesn’t help us as a society.”

 


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.