On March 11, the Aadhaar Bill was passed by 73 of the 545 members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, after three hours of discussion. It sanctions the bulk collection and centralisation of biometric and demographic data by the government and private businesses. Many people argue that the controversial Bill contains inadequate provisions to protect the privacy of Indian citizens.
The debate around Aadhaar highlights the need to evaluate what privacy means to us in the face of continual technological change and to inform our elected representatives of the balance we want to achieve between surveillance and security. Here are my thoughts on the frequently asked questions about surveillance that I have encountered and that have been debated in the media.
1. What does surveillance have to do with being free?
American abolitionist Wendell Phillips said: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. The right to live freely with dignity and self-determination has been won and lost repeatedly through history. Monarchs, dictators, the military and democratically elected governments have exploited and even oppressed the citizens of their states for thousands of years. I am only the second generation of India’s citizens born free.
So freedom needs to be constantly defended and protected every time a government changes and every time a new technology appears. This is the first reason why we should care about unfettered surveillance. Unfettered, it provides individuals, governments and businesses the opportunity and technology to monitor and interfere with how we spend or don’t spend our money, where we go, whom we visit and talk to, what information we seek, even when we wake and sleep.
You may not be making bombs, hiding weapons, selling illegal drugs or participating in other unlawful activities in your home, but that doesn’t mean you are willing to let the police enter and search it at any time of night or day without your permission, or a good legal reason and a search warrant.
The reason we don’t allow the state and its representatives to enter and search our homes and offices at will is because, one, this is an invasion of our privacy and two, this gives them unrestricted power to interfere with our lives and potentially misuse their authority. Most people would agree that many injustices are witnessed in military states or times of Emergency when these privacy laws are relaxed.
Your phone, your computer, the many private accounts you set up online are an important part of your private home and work life. There is no reason why the same rules of privacy should not apply to these relatively new parts of your personal life as they do to your home and land. The decision is yours to take and you can say “no” to the state and to businesses.
Another way to think about this is as US National Security Agency whistleblower and privacy campaigner Edward Snowden puts it:
“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say”.
The fundamental right to freedom of speech is yours and is protected whether you exercise it or not. "Nobody needs to justify why they ‘need' a right," said Snowden. "The burden of justification falls on the one seeking to infringe upon the right." He added: "You can't give away the rights of others because they're not useful to you… the majority cannot vote away the natural rights of the minority."