28 October 2015

Guarding the E-Treasury from Cyber Companies

October 24, 2015

Cyber technology offers emancipatory possibilities. It also allows coercive regimes to intrude into people's privacy. The shape the internet takes will hinge, to a great extent, on how Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and Japan, negotiate its structure with the Western powers.

Atul Bhardwaj (atul.beret@gmail.com) is Senior Fellow, ICSSR, at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

The sudden appearance of four chapattis in collector Hopkin’s dispatch box in end-February 1857 marks the beginning of the 1973 Booker Prize winner J G Farrell’s, The Siege of Krishnapur. The chapattis signal a rebellion by the sepoys in the fictional Indian town. The scene is inspired by the surreptitious transmission of chapattis and the epidemic spread of the phenomenon that preceded the 1857 sepoy rebellion against the East India Company. In 1894, the “colonial information panic” was once again triggered when rows of mango trees were found smeared by mud plaster mixed with tufts of hair (Wagner 2013). The indigenous communication mode was used to spread the message “throughout Behar and the provinces to the East and West,” and the British were almost convinced that this was a signal for another uprising. The “mutiny-motifs” of the 20th century were as effective in mobilising people as are the videos and texts transmitted through social media networks in the 21st century. Facebook, Twitter and others are not the ultimate facilitators of “Tahrir Square” type protests or the mob that brutally lynched an ordinary Muslim in Dadri District of Uttar Pradesh for allegedly eating beef. Neither mobilisation nor messaging is an invention of mobile technology.

Primitive forms of signalling were as effective in gathering people, as are the postmodern social media platforms. The internet provides unprecedented speed to spread a rumour or signal a revolt. The flip side is that it deprives the subaltern the shelter of the “underground.” On the other hand, internet interactions produce a glut of intelligent information that is available to the state on a platter.

According to the Economist, technology is no longer a vertical industry, “it is a horizontal enabling force throughout the whole economy” (2015a: 18). A mobile device is now more than a mere tool of communication and social networking. We have reached a stage where matching a message with the mobile from where it originated is fairly simple. While this raises serious issues about individual privacy and the growing reach of the paternal state, it also opens new vistas in the field of governance. The government’s focus needs to shift from cyber-policing to exploiting the potential of mobile technology in eradicating poverty and protecting the environment.

Mobile technology is metamorphosing the brick and mortar bazaars, banks and stores to e-commerce sites and cloud computing. One of the main reasons for the growing reach of mobile technology is its ability to render paper currency, credit cards and chequebooks redundant. The power of computing technology lies in reducing notes to numbers—make electronic cash or digital-cash (D-cash) fly from the “cloud” to smartphones in a split second. This power grows exponentially when the D-cash account of an individual, company or government is dovetailed to a dedicated device that requires no mints, vaults and tellers. Such a smartphone rolls the entire history, identity and savings of a person or firm into one. This enables a government to update its census data with every single birth and death in the country, update below poverty line (BPL) figures, and automatically reach out to the poor with subsistence money on a day-to-day basis without the involvement of any agency. The government saves millions of rupees on its election paraphernalia because free and fair elections are possible through the use of dedicated devices. These technologies help us deliver “minimum government and maximum governance.” In a typical D-cash transaction between two individuals, technology enables the state and central governments to deduct taxes at source and deposit them into the respective “virtual” treasuries in real time. The financial transaction, accounts and tax returns of these individuals are updated automatically, thus making the chartered accountant and the tax collector redundant in the governance infrastructure. At present, in the Indian context, it sounds surreal. As the technological revolution gathers momentum, India will have little choice to opt out. The day is not far when private technology companies handling D-cash payment gateways will have access to the government treasury.

Cyber Jostling

The quantum of private and multinational participation that a country will allow in management of its treasury will be the critical question that big nations like India will have to grapple with in the near future. D-cash is making cyberspace as sacrosanct as airspace and national boundaries. This is the reason that cyber-sovereignty has entered the international security discourse, giving indications of an ensuing Sino–American cyber Cold War. 

During their recent visit to the United States (US), both Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping interacted with US tech-CEOs (chief executive officers). Xi Jinping reminded the Americans of his “national realities” in building a “secure, stable and prosperous” cyberspace. China is contemplating introducing a cyber sovereignty clause in its National Security Law.

Sensing an opportunity, Modi invited Silicon Valley giants to share India’s cyberspace. His pitch was aided by Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, Rajiv Suri and Shantanu Narayen, the respective Indian American CEOs ofMicrosoft Corp, Google Inc, Nokia Corp and Adobe Systems Inc.

The Indian media celebrated the elevation of Indian talent in the US and India’s formal plugging into the Silicon network. Almost a similar hysteria was built in the mid-1990s, when Indian beauty queens’ victories in international pageant circuits was popularised, ostensibly to mark India’s joining the Washington Consensus and ushering in neo-liberalism.

In the 1940s, when India was a US military base, books and newspapers highlighted the contributions of Indian– Americans in the budding US military–industrial complex. The Indian–American stalwarts, including Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, who invented for the US air force an unbreakable container that could be dropped from an airplane on hard ground without getting shattered, Los Angeles-based Indian chemists Jagannath Sharma and Alamjit D Singh of Illithrowers, and K N Kajtu, who made significant contribution in the field of camouflage technologies, were praised (Amrita Bazar Patrika 1943). Haneef Abdul Razzaack, alumni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was the Principal Planning Engineer of the Industrial Engineering Division of the Board of Economic Warfare in 1942. Sunder S Sidhu worked for the US army and navy in X-raying armour plates and observing chemical reactions in dry cells to measure the cells’ efficiency (Tayab 1946: 64).

Modi’s cyber-liberalism and his soft corner for the Silicon Valley also result from the special relationship Gujarat shares with the MIT. Ross Bassett shows how the three families associated with Mahatma Gandhi sent a total of nine sons to the MIT during the nationalist movement (2009: 213). In the 1930s, Gandhi’s hometown, Bhavnagar in the princely state of Kathiawar, “produced almost half the Indians who earned degrees from MIT.” Three MIT alumni from Bhavnagar, M D Parekh, N B Bhatt and Anant Pandya went on to occupy important positions in Indian industry and government in 1940 (Bassett 2009: 228).

Xi Jinping’s cyber-protectionism stems partly from his ideological moorings and from the fact that China is a rising power that may displace the US from the top position in the coming decades. China does not want to share its people’s data and expose its treasury to US firms. It is largely for this reason that Beijing has banned Google and Facebook. According to experts, Beijing intends to replace IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Cisco Systems Inc servers with indigenous ones, especially in its banking system. Beijing expects foreign tech-companies operating in China to open their hardware and software to complete scrutiny and adhere to strict standards of transparency.

The US too is niggardly in guarding its cyber exclusivity. It has supressed Huawei and ZET in US markets. Huawei, the Chinese telecom equipment vendor, has been halted from becoming the world’s largest provider of broadband networks. A couple of years ago, Australia had debarred the Chinese company from pitching for building their broadband infrastructure. Huawei’s historical connection to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) often works to its disadvantage in foreign lands. Apart from the threats of cyber-thefts and spying that allegedly emanate from China, US action against Chinese companies is also guided by its need to preserve the leadership position of its firms that now “host 61% of the social media users, undertake 91% of the searches and invented the operating system of 99% of its smartphone users (Economist 2015b: 5). 

Cyber technology offers both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, it gives tremendous power to governments to pierce the privacy of its citizens. As Edward Snowden informs, intelligence agencies can now remotely operate and listen to individual smartphones and laptops using “Dreamy Smurf” and “Nosey Smurf” software (Paul Gallagher 2015). On the other hand, people can use smart technologies as an emancipatory tool by making governments and corporate balance sheets more transparent. Paradoxically, smartphones that promise to promote the economy are also designed to destroy white-collar jobs. Does this mean we turn into Luddites and oppose the march of technology? Or, alternatively, welcome the end of urban offices and convert them into farms that are ecologically healthy?

India is extensively studying cyber-terrorism and cyber-policing, but we hardly have literature on cyber-colonialism. After all, colonialism was based on collection of taxes and control of natives by outsiders. The local elite fulfilled the first function and the second was performed by the sepoy, who was the empire’s soldier and informant combined. The internet technology wedded to smart devices enables these twin functions to be performed remotely. Controlling minds through information was never as easy as it is in the digital age. Tomorrow, if Google promises fool-proof tax collection, elimination of fake currency, delivery of quick cash-help to BPL individuals, will Indians prefer it over national political parties? The cyber world is making sovereignty and nationalism lose their sheen. But, the moot point is that Google does not have a software to ensure that history is not repeated and another exploitative East India Company is not born.

In the absence of an international consensus on rules that should govern the global cyberspace, countries like Russia, China, and even the European Union are building firewalls to protect their sovereignty by exercising tight controls over their digital treasury. Can D-money become a tool of counterculture that shakes up the culture of human greed facilitated by paper money? Whether or not the internet becomes a tool of positive and equitable cultural exchange will depend a great deal on BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and even Japan to negotiate with the Western powers the mechanisms to rebuild the existing internet structures for greater cooperation.

Amrita Bazar Patrika (1943): “War and Indian Scientists Work in America,” 22 September.

Bassett, Ross (2009): “MIT-Trained Swadeshis: MIT and Indian Nationalism, 1880–1947,” Osiris, Vol 24, No 1, pp 212–30.

Economist (2015a): “To Fly, to Fall, to Fly Again,” 25 July.

— (2015b): “The Sticky Super Power,” 3 October. 

Paul, Gallagher (2015): “Edward Snowden: Smartphone Users Can Do ‘Very Little’ to Stop Security Services Getting Control of Devices,” Independent, 5 October.

Tayab (1946): Indian Horizon: A Miscellany, for Indian Youth to Entertain, Encourage and Enlighten, Bombay: Thacker & Co Ltd.

Wagner, Kim A (2013): “Treading upon Fires’: The ‘Mutiny’-motif and Colonial Anxieties in British India,” Past and Present, Vol 218, No 1, pp 159–97.

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