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Opinion | Let’s protect individual’s ‘inviolate personality’

Snooping on the private lives of its citizens and intruding into spaces till now considered sacrosanct is not the right of any government, irrespective of its political leanings

First came the ham-handed notification authorizing selected agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource. Then, following a massive uproar, came the government’s weak defence—there was nothing new in the executive order as it had existed in the books since 2009. Notwithstanding these clarifications issued post-haste by the government, the issue of the private lives of citizens being placed under state surveillance is now squarely in the public domain. It is true that the Congress-led UPA did pass several draconian laws like Section 66A, which dealt with penalties for sending offensive messages, and the offending act, Section 69. The mystery is why the Modi government felt the need to restate this as it was already on the books. Was it a veiled threat to some people about actions to come, adding grist to the mill that the BJP, pushed to the wall by recent poll reverses, would target opposition leaders in the run up to the elections next year? What is equally mysterious is why, if security is the dominant motif of the order, the Central Board of Direct Taxes is included in the list of authorized agencies.

But this is all quibbling over semantics, for the real issue is that governments, irrespective of their political dispensation, have over the last few decades intruded into spaces that were hitherto considered sacrosanct. Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, the two Boston lawyers who first articulated the idea of a right to privacy, in their original law review article published in December of 1890, described it as one which embodied protections for each individual’s “inviolate personality". “The common law secures to each individual the right of determining, ordinarily, to what extent his thoughts, sentiments, and emotions shall be communicated to others," they argued.

In the name of security and safety, governments across the world have upended this original definition with all kinds of caveats, progressively diluting this inviolable space. Yet, never before has the individual been more vulnerable. In the information age, digital networks now have a stranglehold on data that lays bare every human being rendering her life in its minutest detail. We are now part of what dotcom entrepreneur and author John Battelle dubbed in 2003 “the database of intentions". Battelle explained that as “the aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result... This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind—a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends." If that sounds like Orwell’s 1984 in 2018, it is because we have let governments and its agencies take complete control of our digital footsteps. Instead of allowing the debate over the notification to lapse into a BJP versus Congress controversy, it is important to push for a privacy regime configured to protect the civil liberties of citizens against the government.

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