Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Photography Prohibited & Other Signs of the Raj

Mumbai 26/11 was not the first time terrorists used technology to kill. And it will certainly not be the last. But every time there is evidence of technology aiding terror, hawks inside the government and outside it seek to wage their own war on technology.

On Tuesday, a Mumbai-based lawyer filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court demanding that Google remove maps of Indian cities or at least our vital installations from the popular Google Maps service. Reason: Police say terrorists sourced maps of Mumbai from the Google Maps service. “Even images of nuclear plants and defence establishments are available on this site. It is a security hazard,” petitioner Amit Karkhanis told the media.

In another after-effect of Mumbai, the government at the Centre wanted to crack down on Blackberry services. Mumbai 26/11 gave Delhi another excuse to mount a fresh offensive on the Canadian proprietor of Blackberry, Research In Motion. Blackberry devices are encrypted so strongly that even government agencies find it difficult to intercept and crack them. Terrorists in Mumbai were allegedly using this device to communicate with their bosses in Pakistan.

About a couple of years ago, there was a huge brouhaha after some people objected to detailed satellite maps of the Rashtrapati Bhavan available on the Internet for all to see. Google had then agreed to blur some strategic locations because the government prevailed. The images were back after some time and thank Google for it. It was stupid of the government to ask Google to comply. If some body wants to attack the Rashtrapati Bhavan, he or she will find other ways to get maps. There are books on its architecture, history and what not where the original maps of the whole Lutyen’s area are available.

This paranoia is grossly misplaced and misleading. Should the government ban kitchen knives because it can be used to commit homicide? Services like Blackberry and Google maps make life easier. Blackberry’s encryption helps corporations conduct business on the go without the fear of someone snooping on company secrets. Google maps, now also available on mobile phones, helps us find our way in unknown cities. It also helps us finding nearest ATMs, restaurants, chemists and other utility near any place we may be.

The move to demand a ban or even control on availability of GPS and other services smacks of the Raj days, the hangover of which refuses to leave. The Central government allotted phones to only a few privileged ones till the late Seventies. Till date, you cannot take photographs of random bridges, railway stations, airports and even some bus stands. This, in an age when satellites can spot every single brick used in such buildings with signs like “Photography Prohibited”.

If the terrorists need a map of Mumbai, they would find hundreds of other ways to procure one even if you ban Google. It will only make it difficult for the common man to use these services. Similarly, the terrorists would find alternatives to Blackberry.

Technology is a two-edged sword. When mobile phones became very popular, we feared that criminals would now use them to their advantage. The fears were not unfounded: the mobile phone made criminal enterprise quicker and deadlier. But the same phone gave them away. Today, a large percentage of criminals get caught because police track their phones.

It's time we stopped fearing new technology. The modern communication tools have made the world a smaller place and a better place as well. Controlling their inevitable spread will not stop its misuse.

(The author has used mobile GPS to get back on the road at places with serious chances of getting lost.)

1 comment:

Mukund Pathak said...

It seems all the crimes that get solved these days are either due to tracing mobile numbers or IP addresses. In the absence of both in a crime, police are clueless, it seems.