The Government of India needs to strike the balance between the Right to Privacy and National Security.

Vishnuaravi

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The Pegasus inquiry ordered by the Supreme Court of India must be supported by the government of India because the government’s silence on this entire issue has raised a lot of questions and this is the time to come out clean and explain its stand on the right to privacy. 

The article is all about the importance of the right to privacy, the role played by the government, and also why the government should make efforts to preserve it as much as possible.

I’m sure all of you would be aware of the Pegasus issue. Pegasus is software sold by the NSO Group of Israel and came to light in May 2019, when there were new stories that suggested that Pegasus software is being used to infiltrate into WhatsApp chats of people around the world. In 2019 November, India’s law minister also acknowledged the fact that Pegasus is being used. However, it became all the more controversial in July 2021, when a group of 17 media organisations published a report having the names of thousands of people across the world who have been targeted using their software.

Interestingly, this list included 300 Indians as well, amongst whom were many journalists, doctors, political people and even some people who worked in the higher judiciary of India as well. When asked about the government’s intention to snoop people who do not have any criminal record, the people who are not a threat to national security, the government has not given its explanation. The government keeps on saying that all these things are being done to keep national security above any threat.

Now, the fact is that the NSO Group of Israel has continuously said that it only sells the software to governments, meaning that if Indians are being spied upon using this software, it has to be done through the government only. Not just India, many governments across the world have actually bought this software, including the UK, the US and many other European nations.

Let’s first discuss the significance of privacy.

Scandals such as the Pegasus issue where the government is spying on people without their permission could have had a much more disastrous impact on other countries. For example, in the US in the 1970s when the Watergate scandal broke out, the US president had to resign. The scandal was at Richard Nixon, who was a US president at that time, had actually used the government machinery and government officials to spy on people from the opposite party. That is, Richard Nixon was a Republican, so he was spying on the Democratic Party, its meetings, etc and when the inquiry was held, he was misusing his powers so that the inquiry could be diverted in the wrong direction. With this scandal, Richard Nixon became the first and the only US president to resign from his office.

Now imagine something like that happening in India. In India, when the Pegasus issue came out, the government, instead of clarifying, has thus remained silent on this issue without offering any clarification about how and why did they choose some people to snoop? There have been multiple RTIs filed, PILs filed in the court. The opposition has tried to have the parliamentary debates, but none of them has actually given any result to the people.

Now, because some people of the judiciary were also being spied on, that is why the court took the matter into its own hands and made a three-member committee to look into this issue. This three-member committee will be overseen by a retired judge of the court itself. Interestingly, the government of India said in the Supreme Court that they would set up their own inquiry committee. But the Supreme Court said that this is not a joke, you are the accused so you can set up your own committee, it goes against the principle of natural justice. So let us set up a committee that will inquire into this matter.

The committee that the court has set up has been asked to give recommendations on these seven matters. That is regarding the enactment or amendment of the law so that these things don’t happen again. Regarding how to enhance cyber security in the country, how to prevent invasion of the right to privacy, how to establish a mechanism whenever such suspicion arises of illegal surveillance, setting up an independent agency to investigate these issues, any other arrangements that are required to protect citizens rights and on any other matter that the committee may seem fit.

Now from the government side, also, the government has reiterated time and again that for them, cyber security and the privacy of people in India is their topmost concern. While the government has not acknowledged the fact that they are the ones who are snooping on the citizens right now, there are some efforts made by the government if Indians are spied upon online by someone else.

These are the steps taken by the government of India.

Cyber Surakshit Bharat initiative under which the government plans to raise awareness among the people about how to be safe online. The National Cyber Security Coordination Center will look into such attacks. The Cyber Swachhta Kendra under which people will be told about how to keep their computers and other mobile devices safe from viruses. The Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre will look into instances of cybercrime. The CERT-In team is responsible for ensuring that an appropriate response is given to any such threat towards the government of India.

Internationally also, there are a couple of initiatives that you must be aware of.

First, the International Telecommunication Union, which works under the UN and the Budapest Convention on Cyber Crimes, where the nations came together to tackle this issue. Interestingly, India is not a signatory here.

Now, it is also important to understand a bit about the right to the privacy debate. The unfortunate fact is, in India as common citizens, we don’t really value the right to privacy too much. For example, if I told you that your Facebook profile is open or your photos can be seen by strangers also on Facebook or Instagram, you would not really worry about it too much and that is not because we are not educated enough.

See, depending upon the kind of country you live in, your problems are supposed to be different. Our problems cannot be the same as the problem of developed nations. In developed nations, the right to privacy is a much bigger issue as compared to that in India. In India or in other developing countries, we are still fighting on much smaller issues such as social equality, such as the right to work, such as not enough jobs, such as good education. 

So for us, if you look at the preference of topics where we have to fight and we have to be concerned about, the right to privacy unfortunately is very far away. For example, while the US is fighting about the gender pay gap that is males and females should be paid equally for the same work, India is still fighting about giving women the right to work. So our issues and our problems are not the same as a first-world issue and that is why even when we had this Pegasus issue, it did not become such a big deal in the country, as it did in the US. Because for us, even if the government is spying on us, we are ready to accept that as long as we think that it is in line with the government’s objective of keeping the country secure.

However, there are multiple international documents and conventions that talk about the right to privacy. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1976 describe the right to privacy as an essential part of human rights. The Supreme Court of India also has reiterated the fact that the right to privacy is a part of fundamental rights under Article 21.

So things are changing in the past few years, while the right to privacy is given more importance by the judiciary also. The Supreme Court also has said that if the government wants to spy on people, it would only be allowed under specific circumstances,

  • If it is done as per the law.
  • Second, it must be necessary and it should be the only option available.
  • Third, it should be done only as much as needed.

For example, if you are spying on a person because you want to know, where does he go in the evening because you are suspicious about his activities doesn’t mean that you will spy on the person’s wife also, the person’s daughter also and the son also. Spying or snooping should only be done as much as needed, and also it must promote the interest of the state.

Other countries in the world, mostly the first world nations, have made a lot of guidelines about data protection, about their right to privacy. In the U.S., for example, in 1974, just after the Watergate scandal, data protection became a legal right. Similarly, in the UK and other parts of the EU, most of the nations have passed laws about data protection, while India is still far of.

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Hi, I am Vishnu, and I have been a blogger for more than 2 years now; and I will provide some knowledgeable current international news to my readers.

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