Privacy is no absolute right. If there is reasonable ground for breaching privacy in the public interest – to stop a terror attack, to investigate crime and the like – it has to be done.
It is welcome that the Supreme Court has instituted a committee to conduct an inquiry on the reported use of Pegasus spy software, sold by its Israeli developer only to governments and under an export licence from the government of Israel, against opposition leaders, personnel of the higher judiciary, election commission officials and journalists. The government’s stance so far on the subject – which falls short of an explicit statement – may make it a challenge for the committee to ascertain exactly what happened.
However, the mandate given to the committee to recommend legal changes to regulate breach of citizen privacy by the State and, importantly, interim measures to protect privacy till Parliament makes the appropriate legal changes is significant. Right now, the State can snoop on citizens without any accountability. Further, agencies can leak data gathered through such snooping to the media and the public discourse, without let or hindrance. We have heard much discussion on the so-called Niira Radia tapes, but little about how the conversations in question came to be recorded and how the recording came to the public domain. Privacy is no absolute right. If there is reasonable ground for breaching privacy in the public interest – to stop a terror attack, to investigate crime and the like – it has to be done. There must be a legal framework to enable this, rules to regulate how this could be done and to hold those who breach privacy with official permission to account for their conduct.
In the US, a court order is required to surveil a citizen. The result of the surveillance and the action taken on it must be recorded and reported to a committee of the legislature. Similar provisions must be put in place in India. In the absence of such regulation, rising technological capability to monitor any facet of an individual’s life would render the very idea of liberty and autonomy infructuous.