Centre for Internet & Society

We now have a rights-based language around privacy in the mainstream political discourse but that’s where it ends.

The article by Aayush Rathi and Ambika Tandon was published in the Hindustan Times on May 1, 2019.

In August 2017, the Supreme Court, in Puttaswamy vs Union of India, unanimously recognised privacy as a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. Before the historic judgment, the right to privacy had remained contested and was determined on a case-by-case basis. By understanding privacy as the preservation of individual dignity and autonomy, the judgment laid the groundwork to accommodate subsequent landmark legislative moves — varying from decriminalising homosexuality to limiting the use of the Aadhaar by private actors.

Reflecting the importance gained by privacy within public imagination, the 2019 elections are the first time it finds mention across major party manifestos. In 2014, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the only political party to have made commitments to safeguarding privacy, albeit in a limited fashion. For the 2019 election, both the Congress and the CPI(M) promise to protect the right to privacy if elected to power. The Congress promises to “pass a law to protect the personal data of all persons and uphold the right to privacy”. However, it primarily focuses on informational privacy and its application to data protection, limited to the right of citizens to control access and use of information about themselves.

The CPI(M) focuses on privacy more broadly while promising to protect against “intrusion into the fundamental right to privacy of every Indian”. In a similar vein, both the Congress and the CPI(M) also commit to bringing about surveillance reform by incorporating layers of oversight. The CPI(M) manifesto further promises to support the curtailment of mass surveillance globally. It promises to enact a data privacy law to protect against “appropriation/misuse of private data for commercial use”, albeit without any reference to misuse by government agencies.

On the other hand, the Samajwadi Party manifesto proposes the reintroduction of the controversial NATGRID, an overarching surveillance tool proposed by the Congress in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. In this backdrop, digital rights for individuals are conspicuous by their absence from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto. Data protection is only seen in a limited sense as being required in conjunction with increasing digital financialisation.

The favourable articulation of privacy in some of the manifestos should be read along with other commitments across parties around achieving development goals through the digital economy. Central to the operation of this is aggregating citizen data. Utilising this aggregated data for predictive abilities is key to initiatives being proposed in the manifestos —digitising health records, a focus on sunrise technologies, such as machine learning and big data, and readiness for “Industry 5.0” are some examples.

The right is then operationalised in a manner that leads data subjects to pick between their privacy and accessing services being provided by the data collector. Relinquishing privacy becomes the only option especially when access to welfare services is at stake.

The discourse around privacy in India has historically been used to restrict individual freedoms. In the Puttaswamy case, Justice DY Chandrachud, in his plurality opinion, acknowledges feminist scholarship to broaden the understanding of the right to privacy to one that protects bodily integrity and decisional privacy for marginalised communities. This implies protection against any manner of State interference with decisions regarding the self, and, more broadly, the right to create a private space to allow the personality to develop without interference. This includes protection from undue violations of bodily integrity such as protecting the freedom to use public spaces without fear of harassment, and criminalising marital rape.

While the articulation of privacy in the manifestos is a good start, it should be much more. Governance must implement the right to look beyond the individualised conception of privacy so as to allow it to support a whole range of freedoms, rather than limiting it to data protection. This could take the shape of modifying traditional legal codes. Family law, for instance, could be reshaped to allow for greater exercise of agency by women in marriage, guardianship, succession etc. Criminal law, too, could render inadmissible evidence obtained through unjustified privacy violations. The manifestos do mark the entry of a rights-based language around privacy and bodily integrity into mainstream political discourse. However, there appears to be a lack of imagination of the extent to which these protections can be used to further individual liberty collectively.

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