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Tilting at Windmills

When I was about to join government service a friend gifted me a set of coasters, one of which said, “My work is so secret that even I don’t know what I am doing”. The present brouhaha over the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill 2016 reminds me of this Catch 22 phrase. One arm of the Government, viz MHA negates the activities of the other arms of the Government in the name of Security. In a clarification which appeared in The Hindu of May 10 the Uttarakhand DGP M.A. Ganapathy who was one of the officials to draft the Bill during his stint in the MHA, told, “instead of getting hysterical, people should send valid and sane suggestions to oppose the draft Bill. This is at a draft stage and the idea was to invite comments.” Apart from the fact that this comments highlights the insane provisions of the draft Bill it is also an admirable suggestion which might have been better followed by the Ministry of Home Affairs from the beginning itself.

According to the Hindu story another unnamed official added that the Bill was under consideration from 2012 but got revived after the Pathankot attack. Apparently the Committee of Secretaries had submitted a report calling for a regulatory body to monitor Internet giants like Google and Microsoft. The desire to fix Google and Microsoft for their recalcitrance in meeting India’s security concerns cannot be faulted. No one asked them to rile the government by gratuitously showing Indian borders in a manner not accepted by the government. Nor was it wise of Microsoft to insert these unacceptable maps in their products and for Google not to blur sensitive installations. If Camp David can be blurred then why not Rashtrapati Bhavan? Why should India have to beg? MNCs not only need to respect but need to show respect to the laws of the country where they operate. If they do it in China and the US why not in India?

That said was it necessary for the MHA in the process of fixing Google and Microsoft to also ‘fix’ the average Indian user, the Indian geospatial industry, the struggling Indian academics and students as the Bill seeks to do? Clearly the other departments say, no. Department of Science and Technology has now put up its own Geospatial Data Policy for comments. But it did so only after the storm over the MHA Bill. Some questions arise. Was the draft bill circulated among the members of the CoS? 

The CoS includes the Secretary DST and the knee jerk reaction from DST points to the fact that it was not. In a comment to the Hindu of May 13, a spokesperson of DST indicated that the MHA Bill will be drastically modified, the penalties reduced and mainly target specific companies that “wrongly depict borders.” The existing version of the draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill will be “significantly changed” as it “goes against the spirit” of the National Geospatial Policy (NGP), 2016, spearheaded by the DST. It will be at least two years before it could become law, the official added. He also stated that DST forwarded its inputs to MHA who acknowledge the same but are silent about its future actions. The Secretary DST also expressed his surprise at the Bill still being online as it was supposed to have been taken down. 

Not only the DST but the Ministry of Earth Sciences reported that they were deluged by concerns from the local and international geospatial industry. Though there are no comments from the other affected Departments like Space and Electronics & IT it is clear that the GIRB-2016 was a solo effort of the MHA. It is time that the MHA realises that in this day and age collaboration is preferred to ‘solo’ efforts because Security is not their sole concern but the concern of all arms of the government, industry, academia and the common person.

We have heard often that terrorists use Google Maps to create mayhem in India. This is mentioned by another unnamed official of the MHA. It is true that high resolution satellite image does show up a lot of features but they do not reveal what these features are. As any remotely sensed image analyst knows, to interpret these features there is a need for ground truth through feet on the ground to analyse and know more about these features. This means that the Pathankot attackers must have also gathered on-ground information through ground reconnaissance just like David Headley reconnoitred the Taj, Chabad House and other targets during the Mumbai’s 9/11. Fixing Google on this count is just tilting at windmills. 

High resolution data is available worldwide from major earth observation companies openly and without hindrance, except if you are a user located in India. Then you are asked to place your order through NRSC, but that is another story! Google merely buys data from these sources and puts them online. We also need to know that data from Indian remote sensing satellites also do image other countries and are marketed by several companies who have been licensed by Antrix, the commercial arm of the Department of Space. So attempts to ‘fix’ Google or any imaging company may boomerang on India which also operates high resolution satellites which can and do image any part of the globe on command. 

MHA seems to be operating on an age old principle of controlling information. In this they are in line with China which absolutely forbids any agency except government agencies to collect and publish spatial data. While there is a general admiration of Chinese economic prowess, this is one area India needn’t admire or follow! There is a paradigm shift in the world of data, information and communications. There is also a paradigm shift in the art of war. Cross border war as seen in World War 2 has been replaced by covert operations behind ‘enemy lines’ to terrorise the population. This shift makes use of modern ICT in a big way. Therefore, there is a need for a matching paradigm shift in the way to fight this war and ensure security by using the same ICT. 

Banning access to data and services which aid development and improve the quality of life of a country’s population is most certainly not the way to ensure security.