On Privacy and Surveillance

I resigned from job in May of 2017. Then unhooked from all contacts with former colleagues and contacts of my erstwhile company by August of that year. I felt finally free from all “Kabarees”, the informers, which I had “suddenly” realized where replete in the company and all the companies wherever I had worked. Like, I wanted a new life, a new paradigm.

I am not bright. And I am not wise. Two of the qualities, the absence of which, one would think, is not conducive in this world. But will the world leave me alone? No, they won’t. There is always jealousy in people, a fear that, this “Idiot” may have it good.

I might be enjoying something and not telling.

Yes, I am enjoying something and not telling. But that’s not the point for me to write this. I wanted to write this since long as I always feel that people are “not entirely right” when they talk about Privacy and Surveillance. I know because I have experienced the breach first hand.

There was one time when I lived alone when colleagues used to look into my dustbin to know what I have eaten that day. I have found them lurking outside my door while I spoke inside the house on my phone. They have walked into my house unasked and unsolicited to catch me into some act which they can peddle as gossip.

Breach of privacy is more personal than digital. A digital breach of privacy, the hacking code kind, will need intelligence of a particular kind which comes through study and experimentations. But I am talking about, downright dumbed down surveillance. The one where people are made to pry on people.

People who are watching you are not “only” on Facebook, or Twitter or sitting as some app on the phone. Common people are not that “Internet” or “Tech” learned. They cannot hit some code and download “all your shopping list” so to say. Majority of surveillance are just plain “boots on ground.” And this I realised in my previous company.

When I was fresh in my previous company at the start of this century, there were several instances where “folks” tried to “recruit” me as “informer”. The mandate was, for me to “go to any group activity” (parties, get togethers, or training classes) and “listen what people say” and “report back” to my “handler”. I was aghast with this suggestion of “occupation” and refused it outright. But these “narrative” made me aware that in every “get togethers” or “conferences” or “training classes” there were always an average of at least three “informers”. Quite late, I knew, except me, everyone was informing on everyone. I was an Outlier.

I didn’t care. I was on my own trip. My own life. Absolutely Insular. Till that day in early 2018 when our door to door neighbour, who never spoke to us, knocked our door in the middle of one afternoon and asked for water.

I sit crossed legged on my bed with laptop on a mini desk on my bed and the neighbour who entered was more interested in what I was doing on the laptop. He spoke innuendos, with one eye on the screen literally trying to decipher “what the hell I’m doing”.

Then his visitations acquired some regularity. Many a times he came close to the screen trying to peer and find out my employment. Then one day, I lost my temper. The guy scooted and never came back. After covid he seems to have disappeared. But surveillance over me did not go away.

This door to door neighbour is not connected to me in any way. Workwise, I mean. The fact that he knows I have left my job and staying at home may have been informed to him by someone who knows me, officially. And that is the “guy next building”.

From my previous company there is an office colleague who stays right in front of our building and for the last 18 years I had no idea which house he is in. Even though I met him several times and several times he commuted with me from office to home in my car, but I never asked him where exactly he lives. Never. I just knew he was the “guy next building”. I came to know where his house is, in the front building, only a couple of months back, 2020. Judge me.

So, one day I spotted him looking towards my window from the watchman’s hut. Not only that. After he left, the watchman took over. Whenever I looked out of the window the watchman had his eyes invariable on me. So I started playing a game of hide and seek with the watchman. I would suddenly peer out my window and catch the watchman looking up and he abruptly dropped his gaze. The game still continues.

OK, what happens when the watchman gets changed? Some new watchman comes in. For the initial few days he is oblivious of my existence. He does his own things. Looks here and there. Doesn’t care or look towards my window. Then one fine day thereafter, his gaze gets fixed on my window. His plastic chair, which initial few days faced the main gate of the building, suddenly turns angle towards my building. Then I know he has been tutored. By the “guy next building”.

All companies have a culture of surveillance. All companies will have “folks” who will love “looking above your shoulders” and “report” to the “powers that be” for a “few small coins” of advantage. In my previous company this “surveillance” was raised to the level of fine art. And I could imagine their joy when they got a “Khabree”, informer, right in my front yard. It’s like getting a lottery.

While I was still employed in my previous company, once in a “Training” session there were some discontent among staff due some decision of management. Out of the blue, I got a call from “power that be” and was queried and enquired on the live subject. I told what I knew. Who all were there/What all they spoke/who spoke what/for/against etc. I’m a complete novice in these kind of matters. And I felt dirty been singled out for this inquiry.

After the above inquitions and within a few minutes thereafter, I got couple of emails from the “power that be”. My “training” session was in three parts. And I had just started the first part on that day. After the conversation with “power that be”, I got “approval certificates” of all the three parts emailed to me. Not that this is a great thing. But to get all, before I even completed the course, and after sharing some innocuous information, was an eye opener. What all the other ‘informers” may be getting when they shared tid bits of “info” on a daily basis with the “power that be?”

Hence, what the “guy next building” must be getting by informing on me. He just has to divulge that he knows me and he lives just “next door” to me. I’m notorious enough to many “ole fellas”. He may be encasing that every day. What Luck!

Office Surveillance is Big Business.

So, coming back to present time, the “suspense” of what I do at home may have been too much for “handlers” of the “guy next building”. They may have decided, “well finally we have to get the horse to the water and find out what he eats or drinks”. By the way, On drinking – I’ve discontinued going to my favourite “watering hole” because “informers” have infested that place too.

Anyway, the suspense, of – What the fuck I’m doing- may be killing them. So, one day “guy next building” got me on some lame pretext. “A week back an old colleague had called him because some old colleague from Delhi had called the old colleague about me”. An old colleague from Delhi did call. But he had called three years back, in 2017. I knew, the “guy next building” has started a game.

So, with me caught, the “guy next building” dialled a number of an old colleague who now lives in Hyderabad. As I was speaking on mobile, this “guy next building” was taking note. There is a storyteller in me who few people know. Besides, I too had curiosity about what others are doing after the fall and demise of my previous company. But my target was this “Guy next building” and the lies as I spoke on mobile was been woven for him.

So this is how I decided to beat surveillance and fort my privacy.

Get a Handle or Avatar and create my cover story.

Surveillance, digital or physical, will always be there. You can never beat it. Attackers will always have an upper hand than defenders in the world, cyber or otherwise.

Who am I? Nobody. But how is the information about me important? It is important to specific interests. There will be people in this wide wide world who will hate me for whatever I am worth. And I have lived an eclectic wild life. Just like corona spreads in groups, I have fostered groups. I am not an informer but the camaraderie I created, with parties and outings, are fairgrounds for “informers” to “fish”. Any information about me, just about anything, will “sell for a few coins” and there will be people who will sell just for that, “for a few coins” of favour.

Privacy and autonomy are one and the same thing. And a person, howsoever asocial he is, is, in the end, a social animal. So being watched all the time is disconcerting. It interferes with the peace of mind. It interferes with choices. Privacy protects us from unwanted pressure and abuse of power. But to keep that truth one has to seed and spread a lot of lies.

Why do I think the “guy next building” is a threat to me? Because the moment “He” actually knows what I’m upto, the information will move up the “handlers” hierarchy and in due course “muddy my pond”. It has happened before and it will happen again. My privacy is about “protecting my value”, of whatever it’s worth, because that’s the basis of my livelihood, life.