25 June 2016

Information is Power.

Mohan Guruswamy
22 June 2016

In the dictionary, snooping is defined as “to investigate or look around furtively in an attempt to find out something, especially information about someone's private affairs. The word itself derives from the Dutch snoepen, which literally means "to eat furtively."

In common parlance it is intelligence gathering or spying by prying. Wiretaps or eavesdropping on telephone conversations or data transmissions are just a means for gathering information about a real or potential adversary or competitor. In a world where information is power, snooping is quite generic and even friends are not exempted.

The CIA was discovered to be listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel among other heads of allied governments. Ironically, when the proposal to set up a departmental intelligence service was first mooted in the USA, the then Secretary of State Henry Stimson, dismissed it with a minute “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” But soon the World War 2 was overhead and the US set up a dedicated intelligence service, the OSS, the forerunner to the CIA.. Obviously Herr Hitler was not considered a gentleman.

Snooping on other nations is now considered a fairly honorable and glorified profession, with intelligence officers and spymasters projecting a certain cachet of adventure and power. However honorable it may be, spying is nevertheless illegal and even allies do not merit exemption. Take the case of Jonathan Pollard who was apprehended in 1987 while serving at the US Navy’s Center for Naval Analyses, passing on classified information to its closest ally, Israel. Pollard, a contemporary at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, is still in a US jail and despite repeated Israeli entreaties. The lessons of history are clear. Spy or snoop by all means, but don’t get caught. The law is clear. You get caught, you get punished.

Technologically we have come someway since the days of close quarter spying like physically listening in. Wiretaps are often not needed. We now have standoff snooping. With modern technological means you can literally pluck information from the air. Remember the implicating conversation General Pervez Musharaff had with his generals from Beijing and how Prime Minister Vajpayee happily gave President Clinton the audio recording? This equipment is now available to private snoops also. Israeli businesspeople regularly visit India to hawk their wares.

Many modern Indian corporations are now behemoths, often with interests and characteristics like states. That’s why corporate groups like Reliance, Essar and others maintain “intelligence” capabilities to snoop on each other and on the state. They also provide gainful employment to many retired intelligence and counter intelligence officers. Like our overseas RAW officers are euphemistically called consular officers, corporate sleuths are usually nomenclatured as security advisors, ostensibly to ring fence the companies against external snooping. But in reality the expertise is directed to ferreting information of much use to the corporate bosses.

Quite often these security advisors reach into their former organizations with blandishments to get their former colleagues to use their positions to pry for their corporate interests. In a free economic regime not dependent on the allocation powers of the state, and in a competitive environment, competitive advantage is due to technical innovation and superior service. Hence knowledge is power. In a crony capitalist system information is power. That’s why our companies invest more in garnering information rather than in pursuing knowledge.

Some years ago the media obtained recordings that revealed that senior Tata Tea executives were in constant touch with the underground ULFA and were making payoffs for protection. Quite recently Essar was found channeling money to Naxalites in Bastar to let them continue to excavate iron ore unhindered. Even more recently we are treated to conversations Tata and RIL lobbyist, Nira Radia, was having with Delhi’s political and media elite.

The airing of these recordings were considered to be to the advantage of Anil Ambani, who had adversarial relations with the corporate bosses concerned. ADAG officials and advisors, among them a former US Embassy hand, had a hand in obtaining and disseminating these.

Then there were the salacious Amar Singh recordings, full of details of money making and private intimacies with characters like Anil Ambani, former actor and MP, Jayaprada as key players in various acts of the drama.

This was considered the revenge of the empire.

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