Saturday, June 06, 2020

Rodney King, George Floyd, and the Visual Media

About 29 years ago, for us, young people in India, a weekly television news program called 'The World This Week', was the only window to the outside world.

Of course, for us then, listening to BBC news on short-wave radio was possible. But ‘watching news’ was still a new thing. And it was very different, and more interesting, than listening to the radio or reading the newspapers.

It was in this program that I clearly remember ‘watching’ the video of police brutality on Rodney King.

It was probably the first-ever amateur videotape leaked to TV News, in the USA. And the first violent video that must have gone ‘viral’ – on TV News - long before the term ‘viral’ for videos got coined.

I remember the veteran Indian newscaster Prannoy Roy telling us how this footage was taken to a US TV station, from where several cable news networks had picked it up. And how it had spread like wildfire then.

When camcorders or handy cams were still very new in the market, this recording of violence in the USA, against a black man, had shocked and infuriated people.

We had come to know later that Rodney King was an ex-convict, on parole, who was chased by police, for speeding and was brutally beaten.

But whatever King’s legal status was, the brute force itself, led to a huge outcry. Some had counted 33 baton strikes on a completely unarmed man.

Moreover, all hell broke loose when those four police officers, on trial for hitting King, were acquitted.

The news had immediately caused huge riots, arson and looting in Los Angeles.

About those 1992 Los Angeles Riots, Wikipedia tells me this: “The complete disorder in the Los Angeles area was only resolved after the California Army National Guard, the United States military, and several federal law enforcement agencies intervened.

“By the time the riots ended, 63 people had been killed, 2,383 people had been injured, more than 12,000 had been arrested, and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion”.

It was then that the ‘Insurrection Act’ was used, for the last time, in the USA. And according to some legal experts, invoking this Act once again could completely undo all these years of police reform.

Let us flash forward, now, to these last ten days in May-June 2020. We have seen the death of George Floyd, or what had happened just before his death. It was also caught on camera.

In fact, it was caught by not one, but many cameras. Some cell phone cams, and some CC TV ones.

In them, we have seen a grown man cry out for his mother in utter helplessness. We have seen him ask for water and say he cannot breathe, again and again. But the knee on his neck didn't let him breathe.

Between that Rodney King's time and this George Floyd's time, a lot of water has flown under the bridge. Things have changed a lot. Some for the better. Some for worse. Racism may have declined. But apparently, it is not all gone.

But let us admit it. If we had not seen the video, we would not have believed it. We would not have been shaken, or stirred, emotionally like how millions are today.

We must acknowledge that visual evidence is a critical component of truth. It is not easy for us to understand and believe some events unless we see the visuals. Very often, visual imagery exudes a strange power. An inexplicable influence. The old maxim of ‘seeing is believing’ clearly holds water.

The visuals of the George Floyd Protests too, whether they are of mobs looting stores, or of policemen shoving down old protestors,  can provoke us to various emotions.

Depending on which side of the fence we are, we could get angry at the other side.

Today’s ubiquity of visual recording devices tells us something interesting. That the Orwellian imagination of a dystopian age - of a big brother watching us - has mutated, into something different today.

Not only into continuous government surveillance, if the government so decides, but also into the availability of numerous independent recordings, in different versions, that can be checked, rechecked, and used to verify the facts.

Sometimes, depending on the perspective, the angle of the camera, and the one who'd shot it, we can get at least a good segment of truth; even if not all truth in all its entirety.

The power of the visuals is something we definitely cannot avoid now. Our TVs, laptops, tablets and mobile phones, coupled with broadband and cloud, are giving us enormous power to record, store and retrieve them in ways that were hitherto impossible.

With the number of cameras become larger and larger, and with the broadband becoming broader and broader, the visual data is sure to become more and more. And the future generations will have to wade through gazillions of pixels to find out what they want.

According to YouTube statistics, people watch "One billion hours watched daily"!! And I am sure it will keep increasing.

Whether we must be thankful for the availability of many recording devices all around, or whether we should be upset that they are causing needless paranoia could be a matter for debate.

But without a doubt, the footage from millions of cameras could be a nemesis to some.

Especially to those on the wrong side of the law.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Video Conferencing and Data Security

“Zoom, the video conferencing app that has become wildly popular during the coronavirus crisis admitted that it had “mistakenly” routed some user data through China.”

This news item in the Financial Times of 4 April 2020 said that Zoom “had ‘mistakenly’ allowed the calls to flow through its two Chinese data centres since February as part of its efforts to cope with increased traffic, as millions of users flocked to use its technology to host business meetings and social catch-ups during lockdown.

“The company said it had since fixed the flaw, adding that the error occurred only “under extremely limited circumstances” and that government customers were not affected”.



As Zoom is based in California’s Silicon Valley, the government it refers to is the US government.

But, what is wrong if its user data had flowed through two Chinese data centres?

Simple. It creates strong suspicions, and fears, that Beijing could be spying on all that data. The Chinese privacy laws could demand that those companies with data centres in China should necessarily share data with the Chinese government when required.

These same security concerns are among the top reasons why Huawei is unable to roll out its 5G plan, globally, as quickly as it wants; especially in the USA.

China’s Huawei is the world's No. 1 telecom supplier and No. 2 phone manufacturer. But the latest news is that Huawei is not allowed to roll out its 5G Plan in the UK too.

One of the biggest concerns for the future is ‘data security’ today. And unless companies make appropriate strategies to protect their consumers’ data, we will be diving into a big-brotherly world where individuals would have to fear the abuse and misuse of their privacy.

We have heard of how Facebook and Cambridge Analytica together misused individual users’ privacy.  We have heard of how Apple’s iCloud data-breach put up thousands of intimate and private pictures of celebrities out in the public domain. We have heard of how some governments’ data centres - of millions of utility accounts of citizens - were hacked by cybercriminals who put up some of the personal user data online. We have heard of the Wiki Leaks!

Take an interesting case from India. It is being alleged that India’s defence minister had recently used Zoom Conferencing tools to discuss with the Chief of Defence Staff, a few days ago.

India and China are both nuclear powers, and neighbours, who do not see eye to eye on some national borders which are disputed.

So, with Citizen Lab, a Canada-based independent research organisation, finding out that Chinese servers are being used to distribute encryption and decryption keys for video links on Zoom, there are new apprehensions on India’s defence security too.

In today’s COVID 19 global scenario, there is a huge surge in demand for video conferencing tools.

Zoom’s usage alone went up 20 times! It had announced on 1 April 2020 that “as of the end of December last year, the maximum number of daily meeting participants, both free and paid, conducted on Zoom was approximately 10 million. In March this year, we reached more than 200 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid” ( for their statement click here).

Apart from Zoom, there are several other videoconferencing tools like Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Skype, Google Hangouts, Cisco Webex Meetings and GoToMeeting which have all seen an enormous surge in usage in just the last three months.

They are being used not only for office meetings but also for holding online webinars and conferences as well as for virtual get-togethers of family and friends.

And we must, therefore, hold accountable all software companies to ensure that our user data is well protected.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Social Distancing - A Misnomer?


“Not enough storage space.”

That’s my phone speaking to me.

When I try to click a picture, it says, “Clear some space and try again”.  And it’s been telling me this, again and again, since yesterday evening.

Inundated with a million messages, bombarded by a billion buddies, my phone memory must be bursting at the seams; or bursting at whatever the chip’s corners are called, these days, in scientific parlance.

Well-intentioned relatives want me to know how this COVID 19 spreads. Well-informed acquaintances want me to try to ‘flatten the curve’. Well-wishing friends want me to cheer up, and smile in these difficult times.

So, from jokes to memes, from parody songs to comedy quotes, from a thousand suggestions to prevent COVID 19, to a hundred medications to fight the outbreak, I keep getting new messages faster than I could delete the old ones.

Those afflicted with this raging new malady, of social sharing on telecom networks, are probably simply taking revenge. Maybe their phone memory chips are getting filled, and they are quickly passing its content on to others. Maybe their fingers are just wandering about on keyboards that are not 'locked down’.

Which brings me to the key issue I wish to address, in this column today – social distancing.

Is it really the right term?  Does it really mean what it does?

This has been bothering me. And, I am sure, it must have been bothering many other like-minded victims suffering from an acute shortage of phone-memory. And others too.

Tell me, can we ‘really’ keep 'social distance'?

We must admit, we are unable to distance ourselves from all those contacts who are tracing us; and forwarding us those audio-video clips, and those gif-jpeg images.

I am socially connected to all my friends. Almost always. Even though one is staying farthest, near the North Pole in Norway, and one is sailing on a ship to a station in Antarctica, I cannot distance myself from either of them.

On social media, I get to see their posts on whether polar bears or penguins have any chance of getting affected by a mutant coronavirus strain. Will it get passed on from humans living in those parts. On their WhatsApp messages, I see their thoughts within seconds. In fact, in real-time, I see if ‘they are typing’ now.

So, shouldn’t the term be ‘physical distancing’ actually?

I seriously think, like many others, that the correct term to use these days is ‘physical distancing’ and not ‘social distancing’.

Language-challenged lexicographers may be rare, but there is no shortage of verbally-confused world leaders. So, we all, like sheep, have gone astray; and are readily calling a spade a shovel.

We all know that vegetarians eat vegetables. But do humanitarians eat humans?

No. That's a case in point, to show how we often deny distinguishing the terms. And grow and accept their usage, over time.

‘Man is by nature a social animal’, said Aristotle some 2400 years ago.

But what would Aristotle call man today, seeing that man is now endowed with enormous power; thanks to a palm-top device, with social media apps, that gives him global connectivity?

Communicating with his fellow beings is something man is unlikely to stop; mainly because physical proximity is no longer an impediment with today’s technology.

It is that innate social connectivity that a man desires which makes 'solitary confinement' in jails such a dreaded punishment.



Thanks to social media, the term 'posts going 'viral’' is now clearly understood by today’s generation.

But then, 'fear' and 'happiness' are both contagious too. And social media communication can make them go viral as well.

To stop the real virus-spread, physical distancing is needed. But to stop the ‘fear’, perhaps, social distancing is needed. But then, think again. We need not distance ourselves, socially, if we want to spread ‘happiness’. In fact, social closeness can spread happiness faster.

So, if you see me sending you forwards, please excuse me.

Maybe I just contracted one of these novel network-bourne ailments.

And, hopefully, it's the better one.