1984… 2019

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Drum roll please! We are now officially a police state. Big Brother is here for real and he is here to stay.  Our faces are being scanned all the time – whether we are participating in a protest march, a political rally, visiting friends and acquaintances who may not be in the good books of government or simply dropping our children at school. You mention it, Big Brother is there watching it. We are literally tracked from camera to camera throughout the country, despite no prior suspicion of wrongdoing!

But what is more frightening is that all this is happening in a legal vacuum. That much became clear after the minister mentor’s frivolous replies to the leader of the opposition, Xavier Duval’s questions about the legal framework in which Safe City is operating. Who will have access to the data? Are there any laws to regulate the use of the data and to control the imposition of sanctions against those who misuse the collected information? Will Mauritius Telecom – a clearly political agent – or Huawei have access to it?

The minister mentor’s answer is: “The data will be used solely by ‘trained’ police officers and will be stored for a ‘reasonable time’, depending on the circumstances” and “no there are no laws and no sanctions”.  But the Prime Minister’s Office – read the prime minister who now has the sole prerogative of deciding who we can marry and where we should live – has issued a certificate, on national security grounds, to exempt the Mauritius police force from the provisions of the Data Protection Act!  Was there a spyware agreement signed with Huawei? Was any international audit done before deciding on where to place the cameras?

“I have already answered”! And that was all we could get from an irate minister mentor.

“I have asked a lot of questions and I have received few answers, Madam Speaker, and it is a shame!” was Duval’s resigned reply. 

But the lack of answers is in itself an answer. In their haste to have us put under surveillance before the general election, the government is playing with fire with our most private data. What we do know now is that a camera system has been put in place and, as we speak, it can inform authorities about wherever we have been over the past few days, and everyone we may have met. The data – according to the minister of technology himself – is handled by the Government Online Centre of the ICT Ministry! That means that the PMO and MT can have direct access to it.

“The only ‘terrorist’ I have heard about in the last couple of decades is my colleague Ish Sookun. I often cross him at lunchtime and, the last time I checked, he had not blown up the canteen yet.”

Of course, the minister mentor kept repeating that the data will be handled by the police. Feeling reassured? I thought not. There’s never much reassurance to be had when thinking about your data being handled by a police force headed by a police commissioner who has been perfect at serving the government, often using hasty provisional charges against political opponents and even attempting to arrest the director of public prosecutions.

The Safe City project is very suspicious and, like many other previous moves by the government such as enacting the Amendments to the Immigration Act with the speed of light, we will soon find out how information about us will be used. And please stop the ridiculous talk about how effective these cameras will be in combating drugs, crime and terrorism – reasons used by the government to justify having a system operate outside a legal framework, totally unconstrained (See our cover story in Weekly).  These cameras are not particularly targeting crime-ridden areas, where in fact you don’t need cameras to catch murderers peddling drugs in broad daylight. As for terrorism, the only ‘terrorist’ I have heard about in the last couple of decades is my colleague Ish Sookun. I often cross him at lunchtime and, the last time I checked, he had not blown up the canteen yet. On the other hand, I have heard about a lot of people who are not supporting the actions of the government. They may have more to fear. The system unleashed against them is intrusive, dangerous, operates without judicial safeguards and is highly open to abuse – particularly by a government with a track record of repression and revenge – and its subservient police.

In Weekly this week, Lalit’s Ram Seegobin compares Safe City to “having the NIU posted on every street with a notebook”. I would like to add that that notebook is put at the disposal of a bunch of goons at will. If that does not frighten you, nothing ever will.  

For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: [email protected]

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