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Worst fears of privacy activists have come true in 2019

With their worst fears with regard to breach of privacy and intrusions into digital spaces coming true in 2019, privacy and cyber security activists expect a better year in the New Year. Attacks on digital life and private data, both by the cyber criminals and by the State agencies, are on the rise.

Alleged snooping attempts by the Government to intrude into WhatsApp accounts of civil rights activists, lawyers and journalists rocked the country a few months ago.

The year, which started off with exposure of 617 million accounts belonging to sites such as Dubsmash, Armor Games and ShareThis in the darkweb, ended with Internet shutdowns and alleged use of facial recognition technologies in some cities by the law-enforcement agencies to track down agitators towards the end of the calendar year.

The Data Protection Bill, which is supposed to provide a sense of security to private data, too has left the privacy activists seething in anger.

“The year 2019 was an important year for how India is vulnerable to cyber security. Kudankulam nuclear plant’s administrative systems were breached by North Koreans hackers. It became public the Government is spying on human rights activists using WhatsApp-Pegasus spyware,” Srinivas Kodali, a privacy rights activist, has said.

“We are back to debating what data to be collected to link more databases with NPR (National Population Register) and NRC (National Registry of Citizens) issue at the forefront of the issue. The data protection bill in Parliament supports all of this by providing exemptions to government to do anything it wants with our data,” he contended.

He also referred to the reports of police across using facial recognition systems to shoot images instead of guns, tracking down the activists.

“Hyderabad police specially has been stopping everyone on the roads to find out who they are if they even remotely look like a poor man who might steal something,” he says.

The State, he alleges, is taking away our rights. “It is getting large control of our life by policing us everywhere using surveillance systems. This better end in 2020,” he observes.

The FSMI (Free Software Movement of India) has said that reports of data breaches and data theft were on the raise. The year also showed how vulnerable the digital infrastructure of banks and social media companies, resulting in private and sensitive data of millions of users.

The FSMI felt that it’s time we demand a stronger data protection law.

Internet shutdowns

Though it has become a routine in several countries to block access Internet as part of clamp downs on protestors, the Union Government has taken this to next level by imposing Internet shutdowns in several geographies. After Kashmir, which is still under clamps on Internet, the North-Eastern States, Uttar Pradesh and parts of Delhi have witnessed similar restrictions.

Besides impacting the regular communication between people, it has also impacted businesses.

According to a telecom industry source, losses due to Internet shutdowns increased to ₹ 2.45 crore per hour by the end of 2019.

The Internet Freedom Foundation, which flags issues related to privacy and barriers to flow of information online, has said that Internet disruptions are “an issue of immense concern and threatens individual rights as well the social goals articulated by the government policy of Digital India.”

Expressing concern over the recent incidence of Internet shutdowns, Apar Gupta, Executive Director of Internet Freedom Foundation, has asked the Union Ministry of Home and Telecommunications to write to all State Governments, cautioning against indiscriminate disruptions of the Internet.

Intrusions into Privacy

An investigation led by a Canadian research institute about a State-backed snooping of rights’ activists has rocked the country. WhatsApp accounts of several Indian activists, lawyers and journalists were among the 1,400 victims across the country as State agencies reportedly deployed Pegasus malware to break into the phones of the victims.

Top breaches

* Malware attack on the Kudankulam Nuclear Powerplant : This potentially affected the administrative network of the system.

* Pegasus malware attack on WhatsApp accounts of activists, lawyers, journalists.

* Facebook exposed the passwords of millions users

* Data belonging to millions of Instagram users leaked.

* Twitter admits a malicious code inserted into its app by a bad actor, potentially compromising information of its users.

* Over 200 Government sites made aadhaar details public

* Details of 7.82 cr users in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana found on the database of IT Grids in Hyderabad.

Source: The Hindu