Recently, the government has moved to make Aadhaar mandatory for mobile phone connections. This comes after the unique identification number was also made mandatory to file income tax returns, to apply for a permanent account (PAN) number, to access the mid-day meal scheme, to access primary and secondary education, and to avail a string of other governmental benefits.
You are entitled to receive all of this just by giving your name, address, date of birth, photograph, fingerprints, iris scan, and any other information, biological or otherwise, to the government as it deems useful for your ‘security’.
And all of this information, except for your core biometric information, is available to a “requesting agency” (any “agency or person” who is willing to pay the fees). In simpler words, the government is authorised to sell your identity information to anyone who has your number and cares to pay the fees.
What impact does this have on the democracy of our country as the government is the protector of the common people? Is our privacy not a priority for our government?
The recently passed Finance Bill, 2017 also gives the government the right to invade our personal space without any accountability. The Income Tax Department can raid anyone’s private property and seize assets without giving any reasons for the same.
The Privacy Debate
In 2015, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi told the Supreme Court that there is no fundamental right to privacy under the Indian Constitution.
However, every citizen should be entitled to their right to privacy, subject to the steps needed to be taken to ensure their security.
When Edward Snowden had brought to light NSA’s mass surveillance, the US government charged him with multiple felonies under the Espionage Act. But in what conceivable sense were his actions “espionage”? Isn’t educating people about the workings of the government and entitling the government answerable to its citizens, what a democracy truly stands for? Snowden could have sold the information he had to a foreign intelligence service for vast sums of money, or covertly passed it to one of America’s enemies, or worked at the direction of a foreign government. But he did none of that and acted like a true patriot.
Some people might opine that the government is ensuring its citizens’ security by keeping an eye on everybody’s actions. Through this, terrorists and criminals can be separated from honest individuals. This argument is based on the notion that the world is divided into two categories of people – good and bad, and the ones who are good need not fear the government because they aren’t doing anything wrong. We cannot reduce privacy to an “I am honest” argument as surveillance in such a large scale would imply living in a gigantic world of ‘Big Brother’.
Coming back to the Indian context, amendments to Income Tax Act, 1962 are the perfect example of governmental abuse of an individual’s privacy. The Logical Indian recently wrote an article on the same, explaining the bill’s pervasive nature. Some readers argued that honest, taxpaying citizens need not worry about its repercussions since they have nothing to hide. This is a completely wrong way to look at it. The fact that the bill gives taxmen the permission to barge into your house and seize your private property for 6 months without even allowing you to challenge the search operation in the tax tribunal, are reasons enough to question its authenticity.
It is crucial we understand that in a democracy the government is answerable to its people.
Privacy and the Internet
We live in the era of the internet – an era where Facebook’s Graph Search gives strangers greater access than ever to our “private” data and Google arbitrarily steals our passwords and emails (during its Street View project).
The internet – once heralded as an unprecedented tool of liberation and democracy – has been converted into an unprecedented tool of mass surveillance.
Is not privacy an inalienable right for law-abiding citizens in a democracy?
Why don’t we care enough?
Since the time we were able to find out about anything and everything – the person we had a crush on, our colleagues’ lives outside of work, our favourite celebrity’s private life – the internet became addictive and we stopped caring.
As social animals, we voluntarily give out information about ourselves on the internet because we want others to know what we’re doing and what we’re thinking. As we published our lives online, service providers grabbed the data and learned as much as they could about us.
Ever noticed how the sponsored advertisements on your Instagram account are perfectly aligned with your likes and the pages you follow? Ever noticed the people present at the top of your Facebook chat box? Those are the friends you talk to the most on Whatsapp. Facebook keeps track.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once said, “Privacy isn’t as social norm anymore.” But in 2013, after his marriage, he not only purchased his house but all four adjacent houses in Palo Alto, costing him a whopping $30 million. So why did he do that? The reason is fairly simple – we, as human beings, even those of us who in words disclaim the importance of our own privacy; instinctively understand the profound importance of it.
In 2009, when Google CEO Eric Schmidt was asked to comment about his company causing the invasion of privacy of hundreds of millions of people around the world, he said, “If you’re doing something you don’t want other people to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Based on this logic, people shouldn’t put passwords in their email accounts, doors shouldn’t have locks and windows shouldn’t have curtains. But emails accounts do have passwords. Doors do have locks. And windows do have curtains. So even those of us who say that privacy doesn’t matter to them, actually do not believe so. People, in their words, might disclaim the value of privacy, but their actions negate its authenticity.
Why should we care about privacy?
The simplest answer to this question is – when we know that we’re being watched, our behaviour changes drastically and the decisions we make are not the byproduct of our own agencies, but the expectations others have of us.
Surveillance creates a prison in our minds
Step one to start caring about privacy is to stop giving the “nothing to hide” argument. As Daniel J. Solove had written in The Chronicle, the deeper problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is that it views privacy as a form of secrecy.
Privacy is not secrecy, it is a fundamental right.
The person we are with our friends or around strangers is largely different than who we truly are. Imagine being watched all the time. How do we act then? Should we show our real selves or behave as a version of ourselves for societal acceptance?
If we do not have a place where we can completely be ourselves, we are bound to have a loss of identity. Therefore it’s important we understand our right to privacy and question the government, the corporates, or any individual violating that right.
We were born in a democracy – and it’s essential we continue living in one.