Last week, I sent this out as an email to some close friends. As an afterthought it occurred it to me that this was better served as a blog entry. So here it is:
The larger need for privacy is to secure a citizen’s fundamental rights. I’ll take India as an example. Unlike the US, India does not consider privacy a fundamental right. There is oddly (or not) no real recognition for the need of, say, larger anonymity in public processes. Why do we not put our names down while voting in an election? We’ve all seen/heard this – why don’t people report information about hit-and-run cases to the police? Why don’t many people, even you and I stand up to a local corporator for not executing his duties? In all cases, we fear misuse of power and excesses of state. RTI applicants routinely get *murdered* for gaining information for the sake of the public good! Can you imagine how much better and secure their lives would have been if the RTI form did not require any identification? How better our lives would be if we did not, at all stages, hesitate to step up to those in power?
The right to privacy, freedom to stay anonymous grants common people a lot of power. In that context it is not surprising to see why a government would not want/guarantee that. Our judiciary had taken enough care in the past to ensure there are locks in place for such far-reaching abilities. That is why we have and demand search warrants or a warrant to tap a phone line or to open registered mail. Bypassing judicial oversight for surveillance (Central Monitoring System) will surely pave a comfortable way for misuse. I would not write this email to you putting myself in trouble (and everybody on this list as an extension since you are all recipients and hence partners in crime :)). We could meet over a coffee and hopefully there aren’t anybody listening in… You get the idea.
This is a question of life-and-death. RTI applicants in India have been frequently killed for requesting information which would trouble those in power. There are no safeguards, you cannot request information anonymously. Imagine the number of scams which would have come into the fore if people such as you and me were not scared to question those we elect to power!
As I mentioned previously, imagine the difference it would have made in hit-and-run cases if bystanders did not fear to report to the police those who committed a crime!
Again, none of this should come at a cost of security to the nation and its people. We live in a country where anonymous threats are issued frequently, many times just to prank. I can understand why the state would not want to “encourage” such anonymous behaviour. However the state must recognise that there is a much larger good that can be gotten by granting people the right to their privacy. More importantly there is much more harm that can be done by a corrupt/bad government. With no legal oversight and no recourse for ordinary citizens, it is easy to turn against people (historically many such events have happened, it is not to fail from repeating).
Mass surveillance has not stopped bad events from happening in the past, neither will it in the future. That is quite common sense. If I know my mails are searched, my phone is listened to, I simply won’t use those. The tall bearded Afghan evaded the world by being a ghost… Our neighbours who wrecked havoc in Bombay used satellite phones. Large scale events are entirely dependent on the success or failure of state intelligence and related agencies. Mass surveillance only endangers more lives than it would protect.
The right for ordinary citizens to protect themselves must be matched with the duty of the state to protect the country as a whole. I trust the police but I have double locks on my doors. Privacy and safety are paramount and one can be gotten without sacrificing the other. Think about it…
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin
Update: [2013-06-05] The Centre for Information and Society, India has put up their draft of the Privacy Protection Bill 2013. This is a good read and if implemented in whole, would be a big step up for the country and our future.