Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Workplace surveillance

Cyber Age
Brave new world of snoopy laptops
From The Statesman
By ND Batra

My networked laptop snoops on me, so does Google. I am not afraid because I have nowhere to go. In these fluid times, when earth is becoming flatter every day and jobs may be moved from one digital hub to another, one never knows where the axe might fall. Or who might run away with companies’ secrets. Since most office workers use the Internet and communicate via e-mail, bosses are watching closely how their employees use the company’s electronic resources, including what they save on their laptops.
Several court decisions regarding workplace privacy indicate that in the USA employees have few privacy rights over their e-mail, if it is stored in the company’s system. Employers no doubt have legitimate concerns, especially regarding the confidentiality of their trade secrets; ongoing contractual negotiations; pornography and sexual harassment messages exchanged among employees that might lead to legal liabilities for the company; and whistle-blowing and other activities that may affect the company’s reputation. These concerns are not new but the speed with which transactions are done on the Internet has created paranoia.
Survey been found that mployees also visit popular sports websites to check scores and also do online shopping and stock trading. Many of them keep the chatline or instant messaging service open while doing other work. Some multi-tasking in the workplace has always been there but the Web has created new opportunities and now it is becoming a common occurrence. With continuous restructuring and layoffs, many working people keep looking for new job opportunities.
Companies are watching who is applying for jobs and if anyone is trying to cross over to a competitor, he should not expect his boss to be merciful.
That was a painful lesson for Richard Fraser, a Pennsylvania independent insurance sales representative with Nationwide Mutual Insurance, who learned a few years ago when he offered his services to the company’s competitor by sending an e-mail job inquiry.
Though he was not the company’s salaried employee and had an independent office, he was using the company’s e-mail system and his computer was networked with the company’s server. In his lawsuit against his employer that he filed after he was fired, Mr Fraser alleged that the company had violated his electronic privacy right under federal laws, the Wiretap Act and Stored Communication Act, but the judge saw no merit in the case.
Sending or receiving an e-mail message leaves a copy on the company’s server, which is much like a filing cabinet, and the company has the right to scrutinise the content. It is important to understand, therefore, that e-mail is the least safe method if an employee wants to keep his online transactions confidential.
Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Michigan, a major health insurance company, fired seven employees in 1999 for violating the company’s policy and ignoring the written warning against e-mailing obscenities using the company’s computers. Discharging employees for sending pornographic pictures and sexual jokes to colleagues via e-mail is not something new.
When the bosses at First Union Corporation, one of the largest banks in the USA, wondered what was slowing down the company’s server, they discovered that some of the employees were e-mailing videos of people having sex and other lascivious materials that strained the system’s capacity.
The employees lost their jobs for violating the policy and no one shed tears for them. Employers cannot afford to ignore online lewd conduct of their employees, partly out of fear that some might perceive the company as tolerating hostile work environment and accuse it of gross negligence. But more importantly, such conduct destroys work ethics.
Ironically, as offline and online worlds collide and converge, workers do not regard the office as a place of work only. Nor is the home exclusively for the family. If a person is expected to carry his office on laptop to his home, why can’t he do his family chores in the office?
The question can’t be ignored because the number of people who telecommute and have their home computers networked to their office server is increasing.
So where does the right to privacy end for an employee when home and office leak into each other? That’s not the only dilemma of the workplace. Some employees need greater freedom and privacy than others. For example, idle banter on the company network might be conducive to creative behaviour and may have to be tolerated in places like schools, colleges, universities, media companies, newspapers, research institutions and others that value originality and creativity.
Graduate students and professors do a lot of work on university computers but that does not give universities the right to own their data stream or intellectual work. Nor does it give them the right to eat away their privacy rights and academic freedom.
Would putting all employees into the same digital straightjacket generate coercive environment? What would the effect be on productivity in the long run?
If monitoring is being done for measuring and evaluating efficiency, preventing fraud, protecting intellectual property and trade secrets, maintaining conducive workplace environment or whatever reason, the rational must be explained to employees and policy clearly laid out. Though courts favour employers at present, productivity lies in the hands of workers.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Better security means more freedom

By ND Batra
From The Statesman

On a recent flight to Chicago, the airport security inspector said to me with a wry smile on his face, “You have been randomly selected to undergo special search.” Why me? Of course, I look different. And with my dark-brown tanned un-American face, I could be anybody. But there were other people too, many all-American faces, waiting for more probing electronic searches, which lessened my resentment at the special treatment.

I would rather fly safe than being blown up in mid-air, even if it sometime amounts to profiling, which of course is not a pleasant thing to think about. But don’t we all profile strangers when we meet them? Terrorism is with us, let’s face it, which we can preferably without compromising our freedoms.

For international flights, the searches are much more rigorous. Eventually India with its burgeoning airline industry, too, might feel persuaded to use the security measures that the USA has been enforcing: digital finger printing and photographing of approximately 24 million foreigners entering and leaving the country from its 115 international airports.

The surveillance programme called Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (VISIT) is based on the premise that either a potential international terrorist is known and has been included on the terrorist watch list and national criminal database that the homeland security department maintains or he could be digitally traced as he moves around the country.

Without such a comprehensive database, it hardly makes any sense for the home security secretary to assert that the system would “make sure our borders are open to visitors but closed to terrorists”. The inconvenience to visitors going through the VISIT screening process is not that terrible; nor is the emotional trauma so severe, not like what it might be in the case of someone being subjected to electronic strip search with a “naked camera” using low-level X-ray beams to reveal a person’s anatomy, including warts and hair along with metal, plastic or ceramic objects hidden underneath the clothes the person wears.

Nor is the procedure that time consuming for a visitor who has already spent several hours in the plane. As technology improves, electronic identification would become almost unobtrusive. Digital fingerprints and photographs will go into law enforcement databases to ensure that the visitor is the person he claims to be when he boards the plane from the place of origin and whether he overstays his visa.

With time, land borders between the USA and Canada and the USA and Mexico too would be turned into smart borders, digitally alive, as they should be between India and Bangladesh. The global village was not supposed to be like that but look what terrorists have done to Britain, the ultimate home away from home for asylum seekers.

The question is whether the system would do what it is supposed to do, that is, to apprehend potential terrorists without giving the authorities a false sense of security. For example, if the surveillance system ends up apprehending only small time crooks, drug offenders and visa violators, some other method less offensive to individual privacy could be used instead of subjecting millions of people to psychological discomfort of being suspects.

On the other hand, the fear of being caught in the digital net might keep terrorists altogether away from using airplanes as weapons of mass terror. When the surveillance programme was put in place, most international passengers visiting the USA took it as a minor nuisance but some advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberty Union took umbrage at the privacy invasive programme.

Since it exempts some citizens of 27 countries mostly Europeans, including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore, on a tourist visa for less than 90 days, the regulations seem racist; but considering that the recent London bombings were perpetrated by British-born terrorists of Pakistan descent, the exemptions must be done away with.

France too has a law that requires foreigners applying for visa to be fingerprinted and photographed at the French consulates. That should be the universal rule. It is some hassle but many of us would gladly pay the price and fly with peace of mind to reach our destination safe.

Airport security measures are not limited to electronic surveillance. Israel, Switzerland, France, Britain and Germany use armed air marshals on some or all flights, as does the USA now. I believe armed marshals should be on all flights, domestic or international, in every country. We need a tough approach to fight terrorism. Passports must be encoded with digital fingerprints so that the identity of a person could be quickly established.

The USA has in place a comprehensive computer-screening programme that will check a passenger’s identity and colour code him based on the threat he poses to the aircraft. This electronic trawling approach is necessary to make air flights safe, along with improving other sources of Intelligence. The number of terrorists may be small, but their reach is wide and consequences horrifying. The same electronic scrutiny should be applied to trains, buses and subway travel. Most travellers brush aside the minor inconvenience of being digitally fingerprinted and photographed. Of course, it won’t stop there.

Eventually US consulates, customs and border protection offices, immigration services, and state and local law enforcement agencies will have access to networked information. Warning: It is at the local and state level that one does not know how the information would be used, and hence the possibility of abuse. Checks and balances are necessary to maintain the dynamic tension between security and freedom.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

India and China

India on the Rise?
But that is what says James Haughey in Electronic News.
“India is not the new China. It’s an entirely different type of investment and marketing opportunity…”

But not so fast, says the London Telegraph: "The launch in India of a personal computer for only £130 is a mark of how the economy of that country has been transformed over the past generation. As Peter Foster, our South Asia Correspondent, writes in today's paper, its advent could herald an explosion in "cyber connectivity" similar to that which has already hit the mobile-phone market. India is living up to its reputation as a developing nation with a sensational information-technology sector. Is it thereby on the way to becoming a global economic giant?" Read more...

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Brits wake upto terror

ND Batra
From The Statesman

Learning to live in ‘Londonistan’

In the wake of last month’s London bombing, President Pervez Musharraf asked Britain to take strong steps to curb terrorism instead of blaming of Pakistan. As if on a hint from the Pakistani ruler, Prime Minister Tony Blair just did exactly that, announcing a 12-point list of stricter measures that included closing down mosques that have become pulpits of hate and deportation of foreign Muslim clerics who “foster hatred, advocating violence to further a person’s beliefs or justify or validating such violence”.

I don’t know whether Musharraf would have the political courage to take such determined action in Pakistan, especially against madrasas and Al-Qaida training camps, regarded by international experts as breeding grounds for global terrorism. Nonetheless, he cannot be blamed for every act of terrorism that takes place in Britain or the rest of Europe even if the perpetrators were of Pakistani descent.

Blair went to the extent of saying that Britain would modify human rights laws, if needed, to enable authorities to deport foreigners glorifying violence back to their native lands, even if those countries have questionable human rights records.

Under the new rules, law enforcement agencies would be authorised to take measures even against extremist Islamic websites and bookstores; and those foreigners in Britain who are actively engaged with them would be deported. Other measures would include stripping citizenship from individuals apprehended indulging in extremist activities who have dual citizenship or are naturalised citizens.That’s what should have happened after 9/11 but most Brits saw no danger to their way of life thinking that what happened “over there” would not happen to them.

“We are British,” they thought, most liberal of all Europeans, a multicultural society. And they thought they could co-opt militant Islam through their openness, their unique British way of life. That seemed to be the pervasive smug feeling, but the subway bombing that killed 56 and the subsequent failed attempts by militants was a rude awakening for the British that Islamic jihadists would spare none. For the fist time since World War II Brits are scared that their Britishness is under threat and have begun to re-examine how far their culture could accommodate multicultural separateness.

At the Friday news conference, Blair said that swearing of formal allegiance and a rudimentary knowledge of English would not be enough to acquire British citizenship. “Let no one be in any doubt that the rules of the game are changing. Coming to Britain is not a right and even when people have come here, staying here carries with it a duty. That duty is to share and support the values that sustain the British way of life.” At the question-answer period that followed the announcement, Blair was hard-pressed to explain how far integration would go without destroying the salad-bowl kind of multiculturalism that has prevailed in Britain for long.

How much Britishness for citizenship is good enough would depend upon the state of terrorism. Frightened Brits would ask for more surveillance and stricter immigration and citizenship rules, as it is happening in the United States. Blair’s immediate goal is to see that tough measures to drive out extremists actually work without alienating the Muslim community at large. A similar struggle to integrate Muslims into their mainstream societies has been taking place throughout Europe since the Paris Metro bombing, the Madrid train attacks, and the killing of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam. Some say Britain has been too tolerant of Islamic militants, who have mistaken its magnanimity as cultural decadence.

Of course the new measures must be vetted through the British judicial system, but Blair is right in emphasising that freedom does not mean that foreigners should come here and say that “suicide bombing is a good thing, these people are heroes…. they shouldn’t come into Britain, and if they are here, they should leave.” These are the words of a deeply grieved and disillusioned man.

Nonetheless, the challenge is how to engage Muslims to accept that, as Blair put it, “you can have your own religion and your own culture but still feel integrated into the main stream of a community” much as British Hindus, Sikhs, Jewish, and Chinese have done without losing their distinctive cultures, their distinctive identities. While Britain may throw out some jihadists, work out some way so that multiculturalism does not dissipate into segregated cultural ghettoes, and every one living in Britain acquires some “British common sense,” whatever that means, the Internet presents a unique challenge for the international community.

Cyberspace has become a watering hole for extremists, where they replenish themselves with fundamentalist ideology that begets hatred against non-Muslims. Cyberspace, where a Muslim is a Muslim, not a Pakistan or a Saudi or a Moroccan, provides a secure, anonymous and fertile ground for Al-Qaida jihadists to spread their hate ideology, raise funds and recruit suicide bombers.

Blair compared Al-Qaida ideology with communism, but communism in its heyday was geopolitical; it had boundaries. But cyberspace has none, so Al-Qaida terrorism presents a different kind of threat, where global cooperation is absolutely essential and extremely difficult. In the meantime, Britain should examine closely, as France has been doing, what cultural permissiveness and appeasement of Islamic extremism has done to their beautiful country. India should do the same.

Tuesday, August 9, 2005


Enhancing life
From The Statesman


President Bush said he would veto any Bill for using federal money “to promote science that destroys life to save life.” In this respect, much of the country is not with him. According to a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, 53 per cent Americans favour embryonic stem cell research.

Last May, the House passed a Bill to provide funding for embryonic stem cell research, in which 50 Republicans voted with Democrats. Recently, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist broke with President Bush and the conservative wing of the Republican Party and came out in support of embryonic stem cell research.

Senator Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon by training, who might be a presidential candidate in 2008, said: “I am pro-life, I believe human life begins at conception. I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported.” Supporting him, former First Lady Nancy Reagan said, “Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to alleviate so much suffering. Surely, by working together we can harness its life-giving potential.”

Much has be said about Ronald Reagan’s intriguing legacy, his sunny disposition that made one feel the USA is a promised land; his denunciation of the Soviet Union as an evil empire and the call to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, tear down the wall; his ability to bond with the American people through his empathy and earthy oratory; his bold, unorthodox and sometime wild ideas such as Strategic Defence Initiative, and space-based protective shield, Star War in popular imagination.

But as has been said, the way we go away is no less important than as we live. It was frightening the way Reagan lived the last decade of his life, stricken with an incurable degenerative mental disease that deprived him of the most precious gift of life in his old age, remembrance of things past, his life-long accomplishments as a movie actor and a world statesman, closeness to his loved ones through small acts of daily kindness. One might say gods were unkind to Reagan; but it need not be so in the future if embryonic stem cell research is pursued.

It is difficult to know how much an Alzheimer patient suffers but we can imagine how much Mrs Reagan must have endured as she saw the wasting away of her husband with the knowledge that one day if the stem cell research continued there might be hope for one of the most dreaded human illnesses. Anytime an older person stumbles upon a word, a name, the place where he parked his car or placed his keys, we wonder if this could be the beginning of a slow end.

But in this land of eternal optimism, we look to science and medicine to improve the quality of life. We know that embryonic stem cells could be the beginning of a new life for persons suffering from fatal ailments, brain damage, heart and kidney malfunctions, diabetes, Parkinson’s, spinal chord injuries and a host of other devastating diseases.

Stem cells that are derived from aborted and discarded embryos could be directed to grow into any kind of specialised cells to repair damaged human parts and trigger a self-regenerative process in the human body. It is an example of how life feeds upon life to renew itself, which no doubt creates some ethical dilemmas.But because of his personal faith, President Bush has limited the funding of stem cell research to 78 useable lines that were available prior to 9 August, 2001, just to allow the existing research in the pipeline to continue. Those lines have dwindled to 22 only.

There is no ban, however, on private research and many companies and private universities are pursuing it. Last year, California voters approved a $3-billion bond to promote research in the state.

Turning away from research that might be the next step on the evolutionary ladder and which also holds the promise of reducing human suffering is an act of cruelty. Choosing life over potential life is practical ethics at its best.

While Americans have been embroiled in the controversy regarding embryonic stem cell research, it is amazing that no serious question has been raised in India about its moral and ethical ramifications. India’s minister of science and technology and ocean development, Kapil Sibal, told the Rajya Sabha that his ministry was working on a strategy for promoting embryonic and adult stem cell research for therapeutic applications.

I am cautiously in favour of embryonic stem cell research, but to develop a strategy without a national debate, without a national policy, could be disastrous. India should explore the ethical boundaries of embryonic stem cell research including therapeutic cloning, duplicating animals (as South Korean scientists have done cloning an Afghan puppy), and even gender selection of children by parents in India who prefer boys to girls. Research in regenerative and therapeutic medicine and technology should not be entirely left to the marketplace.

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Give Bangladesh a chance

Bangladesh as a dangling metaphor
From The Statesman

There is a reason for Bangladesh textile exporters to be optimistic about the long-term outcome of China’s revaluation of the yuan. Of the $7.57 billion export last year, its textile accounted for 75 per cent; but since the phasing out of quota in January 2005, Bangladesh exporters have feared that they might be mauled by China’s cheaper exports.

Fazul Haq, Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers Exporters Association president, was quoted as saying, “The appreciation of the Chinese currency means a lot of Bangladeshi exports and jobs since Chinese products are a competitor in the global marketplace.” Chinese products, though cheaper, are certainly not better. The cost-conscious American consumer does not care who made it.

In other words, by pegging the yuan to the dollar and keeping it artificially low, China has been indirectly siphoning off jobs from Bangladesh, a proud democratic Muslim country which needs US help in keeping Islamic militants at bay. To some extent it has been successful. Creating jobs is one way of doing it. But Americans have been more interested in seeing what free market capitalism does to Communist China than its transformational effects upon a Muslim society, which might fall into the kind of hell hole that the Taliban created in Afghanistan.

It is a specious argument that the American consumer would have to pay more if Wal-Mart, JC Penny, Target and other global buyers and mega stores could not buy cheap goods from China. They would look somewhere else and countries like Bangladesh, the quality of whose garments compares favourably with China’s, could easily provide an equally attractive alternative source of supply.

But the political and social consequences of a dollar going to Bangladesh are far more momentous than a dollar going to China. Consider what Jeffrey D Sachs, the Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University says about Bangladesh in his remarkable new book, The End of Poverty: “Not only is the garment sector fuelling Bangladesh economic growth of more than 5 per cent per year in recent years, but it is also raising consciousness and power of women in a society that was long brazenly biased against women’s chances of life.”

Since most of the employees of export-oriented garment industry are women, just imagine if, Wal-Mart, for example, which buys most of its garments from China, shifts its production by 10 per cent to Bangladesh, the social consequences would be tremendous and would reverberate throughout the Muslim world. Henry Kissinger once called Bangladesh an international basket case, but he has been proved wrong. Bangladesh has climbed the first rung of the development ladder and its growing middle class is proud of the biggest shopping mall in Asia, Bashundhara, with 2,000 stores, which recently opened in Dhaka. Bangladesh might yet escape the fate of becoming another Afghanistan.

Continuing how the garments industry is transforming life in Bangladesh, Dr Sachs says, “The job for women in the cities and rural off-farm microenterprises; a new spirit of women’s rights and independence and empowerment; dramatically reduced rates of child mortality; rising literacy of girls and young women; and, crucially, the availability of family planning and contraception have made all the difference for these women.” But what has this to do with China?

If the global marketplace is a level playing field, economic growth would take place in many countries and prosperity would spread globally. But the USA has been timid in dealing with China, fearing that if China stopped investing its export-earned dollars in the US Treasury, US interest rates would go up, mortgages would become more expensive and the housing bubble would burst.

Since the Chinese don’t buy much from the USA, the surplus dollar is invested in the US Treasury at a low rate. In other words, China has been providing cheep loans to Americans to buy goods from China. China holds $270 billion in US Treasury bonds, which is a kind of threat to the US dollar. What if China shifts its investment from the US Treasury to euro?

This question would not have arisen, if American companies had diversified their buying and let countries like Bangladesh accumulate dollars. In July, a Chinese General threatened to nuke several US cities in case the US intervened in the China-Taiwan conflict. Do you think a Bangladeshi General would have been foolish enough to utter such a diplomatic stupidity? Even a country like the USA that believes in free market capitalism cannot separate foreign trade from public diplomacy. Wal-Mart is not politically neutral. The question is whether China’s announcement of the revaluation of its currency by 2.1 per cent, unpegging it from the dollar but tying it to a basket of undisclosed currencies, is simply a rope trick to muffle American criticism.

Hong Kong, “whose currency,” according to Financial Times, “is considered a proxy for the Chinese currency,” has not revalued its dollar, which means that what China is giving with one hand is taking with the other.

Maybe the yuan revaluation is a clever diplomatic move to soften Congress anger and make way for a red carpet treatment for President Hu Jintao’s US visits in September. And there lies the danger. As China continues mesmerising Americans with its phenomenal export-oriented economic growth, spectacular attempts to take over American companies like Unocol and Maytag, and Machiavellian manoeuvres to oust the USA from Central Asia, I am afraid, Bangladesh—a metaphor dangling between Bashundhara and the Taliban, an exemplar of what the dollar could do to a Muslim country struggling to keep itself away from destructive Islamic extremism — would be forgotten.