Tuesday, December 27, 2005


When security trumps everything

From The Staesman

Multinationals spin and hype to push the envelop of our expectations of absolute security — not only physical security but also of our health. They tickle our fantasies and seed our dreams. In slogans and jingles they capture our hidden desires. Sometime one-liners have an unintended message symbolic of the new era we are sliding into willy-nilly.

In a full-blown two-page advertisement in major newspapers and magazines, not long ago, a digital multinational company created a thought-provoking blurb for the kind of world that might be emerging from the digitally networked wireless society. On one side of the double page blow up, a sharp-looking vigilant cop said in the ad: “I have x-ray vision.

I have the power to see a bank robbery from across town. I have the power to see how many people are robbing the bank. I even have the power to see which one is wearing the ski mask. I am more than a police officer.”

This has been a long cherished fantasy of security experts, which is now being fed feverishly by the developing digital surveillance technology, including the airline screening system that the US Transport Agency has put into place, raking up much controversy.

Reading the ad I wondered why this technology could not be used in Iraq for controlling insurgency that is killing and maiming Americans and Iraqis. Could keeping the peace be helped with technology? Probably.

As the adman continued on the next page, the police officer’s extraordinary power came from the fact that he’s wirelessly networked with a ubiquitous surveillance system. “I am the x-ray glasses (which the police officer wears)…. I have the power to send videos and data without the use of wires. I have the power to link a bank’s surveillance camera to a squad car en rout to robbery. I have the power to show cops what they’re up against.”

But keep in mind that it’s not the police officer that said: “I am here to protect and serve.” It’s the computer company boasting: “I am more than a network.” We were being asked to trust the network that would improve the efficiency of our otherwise dumb police and promised other wonders such as hastening the development of new drugs.

In general, ads promise to fulfil an existing need or turn our suppressed wants and subliminal desires into urgent needs that must be fulfilled.

Continuing the series, the ad offered much more. The second part showed a seashell that promised to fight cancer. “I have an extract in my shell that has the power to slow cancers in mice. I have the power to be the next penicillin.” That’s an unsubstantiated claim, but I couldn’t stop wondering what if that turned out to be true. Admen are no buffoons. They weave our collective dreams and wishes on paper and screen. I must suspend my disbelief.

The seashell, mercenaria mercenaria, hard clam shell whose delicate meat goes into the famous New England clam chowder soup, is more than a shell. Not so much because of its natural potential but more so because of the power of the network that can turn it into modern medicine. How can the Internet have so much potential for pharmaceutical research? It is through online collaboration.

“I have the power to move clinical trials online so new drugs get to the market faster.” Drug testing that moves from labs to animal trials and finally for human use takes years before the Food and Drug Administration gives its final approval for marketing.

But networking can abridge the time for patients who can’t wait, let say, HIV positives. Clinical trials can be outsourced to India, for example.

And that’s the beauty of the digital age. Whatever work can be done online in the USA can be done equally well elsewhere, wherever there is sufficient brainpower.

And India has brainpower aplenty.

“I have the power to protect a patient’s privacy,” said the voice of the network. Isn’t that what we want to hear? Threat to privacy is at the heart of the network debate. Some people hate being cocooned in anonymous networks where privacy may not survive.

“I can use the power of e-learning to let doctors share research with other doctors. I think sharing is caring.” Yes, sharing is one of the greatest potentials of a networked society, but beware that terrorists could use the same technology also, which in fact some of them, especially Al- Qaida, are already using.

And that brings us back to the police officer, the one who used his wirelessly enhanced networked vision to fight bank robbers except that banks are not robbed by masked gunslingers nowadays but by computer hackers and conmen who may be operating anonymously from any wireless hotspot across the globe.

In the age of terrorism, we are asked not to grudge the police pre-emptive powers to save us from whatever dangers might happen. That is exactly what President George W Bush has been telling us as to why he authorised the National Security Agency to carry out warrant-less interceptions of communications of people suspected of Al-Qaida contacts in the USA. Only if we know that the power won’t be misused.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Making the world safe

Cyber Age: ND Batra

Global interdependence
From The Statesman

Today, India is a much friendlier place to live and do business in than it was a few years ago. There is tremendous optimism in the country that poverty can be reduced and widespread prosperity is achievable.
Although this does not diminish the bold foreign policy initiatives taken by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration, the US goodwill toward India is quite visible.
Americans have begun to believe that the USA has a vital interest in India’s gradual but steady rise as an economic power. Asia must remain a multi-player stage and no single power should attempt to exercise its hegemony.
Though 2050 is a long way off, Goldman Sachs’ modest forecast that India would become the third greatest economic power could not be brushed away. Eight to 10 per cent economic growth is in the realm of possibility once infrastructure begins to improve.
It is important for the USA to establish a long-term cooperative relationship with India both for economic and diplomatic reasons; and President Bush couldn’t have a better person at the helm than an ex-international banker, David Mulford. Unlike political demagogues, bankers don’t throw their weight around.
As some of the most down-to-earth people with their eyes focused on changing economic horizons, bankers offer cold and calculated assessment of the situation and measure their words precisely for market effect. But when a banker becomes a diplomat, the only way he can exercise his influence is through the power of persuasion, by seeking cooperation and convergence of national interests.
America’s attractiveness in India is primarily due to its culture and values. Most people around the world perceive American culture as the culture of Hollywood, pop music, movies and television programmes suffused with sex and violence; but that’s only partly true.
American culture is a culture of openness, of open roads that lead to the free marketplace of goods and ideas. It is a culture of optimism that holds the possibility of expanding human horizons. Americans fervently believe that global poverty can be eliminated; sickness can be cured. Bill and Melinda Gates are some of them.
China has understood only one aspect of the US culture, the free marketplace. By opening its markets and shuttering its people’s mouths (suppressing all protests), China has become the fastest growing economy.
But China is not a model for the developing world. If the USA were to shut its doors on China, the Chinese export-driven economy would be hard hit. So China keeps lending money to America at rock-bottom rates by buying US treasury Bills. China has no other place to park its trade surpluses.
But why does the USA keep playing the game? The USA knows that China cannot stop there. It would open itself to other cultural influences, including free expression and democracy.Sino-US interdependence is good for keeping the peace.
A similar phenomenon of interdependence has been taking place for quite sometime between India and the USA. Although pollsters tell Americans that they are the most disliked people in the world, it may not be the whole truth. Indians, more than a billion, think highly of the American people. They might disagree with some of the US policies; nonetheless, they are fascinated with American society.
So are the French, the Germans and the Russians, in spite of occasional protests. And the Brits? From British nannies to the British Prime Minister, America needs them so badly; another example of interdependence. Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard believes that a country can become attractive by “co-opting people rather than coercing them”.
But if trade with China and rising prosperity have co-opted the Chinese people and given them new hopes and new dreams, why hasn’t a similar policy worked for North Korea and Iran? Honestly, the USA has not tried hard enough to use the power of engagement, which is the best way to exercise power.
Prof Nye suggests that international influence “comes from an effective aid and information programme abroad. What is needed is increased investment in ‘soft power’, the complex machinery of interdependence, rather than in ‘hard power’— that is, an expensive new weapons system”.
Prof Nye acknowledges that to fight terrorism both hard and soft powers are necessary but you catch flies better with honey than with vinegar.American civil society is far more persuasive in presenting the USA to other people than the government does.
But you might say, what about the moral courage of the American President who in the midst of daily terrorist bombing attacks cannot stop believing that free elections and democracy would work for Iraq? This, too, is part of the culture that makes America so attractive. Corporate America, too, makes the USA attractive.
When an American apparel maker opens a factory in Bangladesh, it creates new hopes and dreams for the people. How long would Islamic jihadists stop Bangladeshis, for example, from improving their economic condition by seeking direct foreign investment? And that raises an intriguing question.
If most US investment goes to China, it deprives smaller countries of any hope of raising their economic standards through direct foreign investments. Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan apparel makers cannot compete with Chinese cheap products made cheaper by hidden subsidies. The USA should encourage corporate America, through economic incentives and other means, to invest in small developing countries, too.T
he best way for the USA to become attractive in Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh or Indonesia is through economic investment that creates jobs. That is the job of Karen Hughes, the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. She must coordinate US national interests with those of other nations through bilateralism and multilateralism.India offers her a great opportunity to raise the level of cooperation and partnership between the two countries. The impact of the joint exercise of Indo-US soft power would be felt across the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Watch your e-mail

Betrayed by email
ND Batra
From The Statesman

E-mail seems so personal and private. After all there is nothing between you and the laptop screen; and when you press the key SEND, you have the illusion that nothing could be more confidential than the digital stream that you have let loose.

But nothing is beyond the reach of corporate lawyers and law enforcement authorities in this age of total awareness. Desperate housewives seeking fortunes in divorce have e-mail as their best bet after their husbands have begun to rejuvenate their libidos somewhere else. In early March, The Boeing Company fired its 68-year-old CEO, Harry Stonecipher, for having an extramarital sexual affair with a company employee. He had the brazen foolishness to be expressive about his carnal desires in sexually explicit manner in e-mail exchanges with the woman. None should have read the top dog’s e-mail but someone did.

Stonecipjer, ironically, was plucked from his retirement to rebuild the image of Boeing after the company had suffered a scandalous period under its previous CEO. Enron, the defunct energy conglomerate that put up a power plant in Dhabol, Maharshtra, was undone by its e-mail, which in hindsight you might say was good for the stakeholders and public at large. The company did not comprehend the liability issues in dealing with email, which makes me believe that every business should have its annual e-mail audit.

Employees should be given workplace and documentation training. Since most American office workers use the Internet and communicate via e-mail, bosses are watching closely how their employees use the company’s electronic resources. Several court decisions regarding workplace privacy indicate that in the United States employees have few privacy rights over their e-mail, if it is stored in the company’s system.

Employers no doubt have legitimate concerns about what their workers do in their cubicles, especially regarding the confidentiality of their trade secrets; on-going contractual negotiations; pornography and sexual messages exchanged among employees that might lead to legal liabilities for the company; and whistle-blowing and other activities that may affect the reputation of the company.

These concerns are not new but the speed with which transactions are done on the Internet has created paranoia. It has been widely reported that office workers do visit popular sports websites to check scores and also do online shopping and stock trading. Many of them keep a 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. One never knows where the axe might fall. American corporate culture has changed. Being loyal to the company has no meaning nowadays. You can’t be loyal to a company that might outsource your job to hmm… China!

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 the painful lesson Richard Fraser, a Pennsylvania independent insurance sales representative with Nationwide Mutual Insurance, learnt a few years ago when he offered his services to the company’s competitor via e-mail. Although he was not a salaried employee of the company 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 scrutinize 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. The delete key is the most deceptive piece of software technology ever invented. 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 material 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 a hostile work environment and accuse it of gross negligence. But more importantly, such conduct destroys the work ethic. I

ronically, 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 commingle? Maybe privacy does not exist any longer – whether you are the boss or at the bottom of the barrel.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Eastward Ho


"As part of India's look East policy, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will leave for Kuala Lumpur on Sunday to attend the first ever East Asia Summit (EAS), which has a long-term objective of establishing an Asian economic community on the lines of the European Union."

Read more

Tuesday, December 6, 2005


Cyber Age:ND Batra

Restore civil liberties
From The Statesman

The USA Patriot Act hastily enacted in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks has diminished civil liberties, though the American people accepted it stoically as a necessary evil to secure their lives and civil liberties.

The Act gave enormous powers to law enforcement authorities to invade citizens’ privacy and collect information, with little checks and balances, to uncover suspicious patterns of behaviour that might be linked to terrorism.

There has been no empirical evidence that the Patriot Act has pre-empted or prevented terrorist activities in the country, though one might say, in a manner of post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, because there has been no terrorist attack in the USA since 11 September, 2001. So, this in itself is strong evidence that the Patriot Act has been working.

With time, the Patriot Act began to be perceived as the most un-American legislative measure and it has outraged politicians on both sides of the aisle, apart from libraries, corporate America, and small and large businesses that are required to do surveillance on the activities of their patrons, employees and customers.

As The Los Angeles editorial said: “When Congress approved the Patriot Act, it put its trust in prosecutors and investigators to use their expanded powers responsibly. It now appears that trust was misplaced.”

The law enforcement authorities put hundreds of thousands of people under surveillance by demanding to see their private records from various sources without being questioned about the necessity of doing so.

While the victims of surveillance and searches might not have noticed their civil rights being diminished, but the information providers, libraries and retailers, for example, have felt the suffocating power of the Patriot Act.

Since there is no way electronic information can be returned to the owner or be shredded, there is nothing to prevent authorities from misusing the information for political purposes. American society is not based upon blind trust of the people in power. On the contrary, with a healthy doze of cynicism and paranoia, it is presumed that power might be misused and therefore it must be checked and balanced. No one should have power more than is absolutely essential to the job.

The Patriot Act imposed unhealthy silence upon civil society, the countervailing force that has kept America open, free, innovative and creative. The Patriot Act might have been responsible for creating the collective mindset that not only silenced the media about the truth about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but also turned some of the finest investigative journalists, including stars from The New York Times and The Washington Post, into unintentional and unself-conscious collaborators of The White House.

The Patriot Act will expire on 31 December and the Bush administration has sought Congress to reauthorise the Act with minor revisions; but a bi-partisan group of six Senators threatened filibuster unless the reauthorisation Bill contained sufficient safeguards to prevent abuse.

Supporting changes in the revised anti-terror Act are several major US business groups, including Association of Corporate Counsel, the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Realtors, Financial Services Roundtable and Business Civil Liberties Inc, asking for changes in rules that give authorities unbridled access to their confidential records.

Why would the American businessman turn against his benefactor in the White House, a most pro-business administration ever?

According to The Wall Street Journal, the groups’ letter to the Senate Judiciary Chair Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said: “…we are concerned that the rights of businesses to confidential files — records about our customers or our employees, as well as our trade secrets and other proprietary information — can too easily be obtained by the Patriot Act. It is our belief that these new powers lack sufficient checks and balances.”

This is a remarkable statement coming from corporate American, which a few years ago was hit by a spiral of corporate scandals from the energy giant Enron to domestic diva Martha Stewart. Without checks and balances, freedom evaporates and so does trust; and so does the free marketplace, which is based upon nothing but trust.

In the USA, checks-and-balances based freedom is an economic necessity. Since the 11 September terrorists attacks, American businesses have been willingly cooperating with federal law enforcement authorities, primarily to protect and safeguard their businesses and, of course, to appear as responsible corporate citizens.

But in the process, they have been willy-nilly turned into collaborators and informers against their own people, employees, customers and clients at home as well as abroad, as it normally happens in authoritarian regimes like China, for example.

What corporate American wants is the right to question and challenge government requests for records when the information is proprietary (trade secrets) and privileged (confidential negotiations) and has no relevance to the terrorism threat and national security.

An in-camera court could decide in confidence whether such a demand for information is necessary, whether an alternative is available; and how the information would be used and for how long it would be kept in records to prevent its future misuse.

By protecting itself from the excesses of the Patriot Act, corporate America might help restore our civil liberties. That would be a highly patriotic act.