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Before getting ready to settle into the plush Governor’s House in Calcutta for the next five years, outgoing National Security Advisor M K Narayanan has let the cat out of the bag by revealing that Chinese hackers have targeted the computers at the Prime Minister’s Office and other top security establishments. We have not been told how serious the matter is, or how successful the hackers were in extracting useful information, but the mere fact that an attempt was made and has been acknowledged by the NSA himself raises serious concerns over cyber security at the highest levels of government. It is also not known for sure if the Chinese government is behind these activities, but one can perhaps hazard a guess without straying too much off the mark.

The Chinese government is swimming in unholy waters. On the one hand, it is trying to shield its own people from knowledge of the atrocities committed in the past by its communist regime by blocking out specific content from internet search engines, while on the other, it is going out of its way to fish out sensitive information from the systems of rights activists (as Google claims) and now from computers in the PMO. It won’t give, but it will only take. The same might be said for its land-grabbing tendencies along the Sino-Indian border.

Be that as it may, defence remains our best and only offence in such matters, which brings us to the all-important question – Is India prepared to tackle cyber espionage in the 21st century? Mr Chidambaram seems to be doing an excellent work in tightening up security in the country after 26/11, but cyber terrorism is a very different and perhaps more potent threat today, and needs to be dealt with on a war footing. India boasts of a thriving IT industry, and there is no reason why it should lag behind on cyber security as well. The Prime Minister has shown his ingenuity by appointing an IT czar at the helm of the ID cards project, which would otherwise have languished like most government schemes if assigned to a minister or a civil servant.  He can show the same ingenuity in the matter of dealing with cyber incursions, and come up with an out-of-the-box idea to show the way. How about a Narayana Murthy as Minister for Cyber Security?

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Tiananmen Square on Google.com
Tiananmen Square on Google.cn

“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting the progress of the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.” – Mao Zedong (1966)

I came across these seemingly unbelievable words, while running a search on Google with the string “Chairman Mao on Liberty”. Needless to say, the first couple of pages did not yield anything relevant, and, in a rare event for a Google search, I had to navigate to the third or fourth page, with modified search parameters, to actually find this. This is not surprising, as Mao is not expected to have said much about liberty, unless of course in an antagonistic sense. The point, however, is that while I could at least find it, someone running the same search on Google.cn would have exhausted himself and the search engine trying to find it. Beijing must have censored it, assuming it to have been uttered by the Chairman in a moment of indiscretion! (These words were actually the banner of the short-lived ‘Hundred Flowers Campaign’ initiated, and thereafter suppressed by Mao in a rare move to project a positive image to the West.)

Much is being made of Google’s threat to shut shop in China if censorship continues, and recently, Yahoo has joined the moral bandwagon and expressed sympathy with Google, which is sitting currently on a moral high horse of sorts. Some say that this is pure posturing, and that Google is seeking an honourable exit strategy from a loss-making market. Where, after all, was Google’s conscience when it made the deal with the devil in the first place? But whatever be the compulsions behind Google’s intended exit (note that Google.cn is still online) from the Chinese market, it brings to fore the issue of information censorship in the present age.

Suppression of free thought and restriction of access to information have been the hallmarks of communist China, and that is one of the few remaining characteristics of communism that the country has retained. In many other respects, particularly economy, trade and business organisation, the Chinese have been quick to adopt liberal models and are also reaping the benefits of the same. The average Chinese is richer and perhaps lives more luxuriously than the average Indian whose country is politically more liberal. Does this justify, however, the Chinese government’s policy of hiding its skeletons by means of state control? Is the government so naïve as to believe that it can prevent popular dissent by cutting out the grisly images of Tiananmen from the web pages of its burgeoning millions, many of them curious and inquisitive youngsters?

The current political system in China is the result of a popular uprising which took place before internet was even invented. There was no Google or Baidu to alert the masses to the injustices of those who were then in power. If there is to be another revolution in China, it will come riding on the relentless tides of history, like it has always happened before, and a search engine or two in such a situation will hardly be of much significance. Until then, the People’s Republic should behave like one and allow a ‘hundred schools of thought to contend”, as its founder may have inadvertently let slip in a moment of rare sapience.

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