Privacy Law in India: A Muddled Field

[This piece was first published in The Hoot in April 2014.]

Privacy evades definition and for this reason sits uneasily with law. The multiplicity of everyday privacy claims and transgressions by ordinary people, and the diversity of situations in which these occur, confuse any attempt to create a common meaning of privacy to inform law. Instead, privacy is negotiated contextually, and the circumstances that permit a privacy claim in one situation might form the basis for its transgression in another.

It is easy to understand privacy when it is claimed in relation to the body; it is beyond argument that every person has a right to privacy in relation to their bodies, especially intimate areas. It is also accepted that homes and private property secure to their owners a high degree of territorial privacy. But what of privacy from intrusive stares, or even from camera surveillance, when in a public place? Or of biometric privacy to protect against surreptitious fingerprint capturing or DNA collection from the things we touch and the places we visit every day? Or the privacy of a conversation in a restaurant from other patrons? Clearly, there are multiple meanings of privacy that are negotiated by individuals all the time.

Law has, where social custom has demanded, clothed some aspects of human activity with an expectation of privacy. In relation to bodily privacy, this is achieved by both ordinary common law without reference to privacy at all, such as the offences of battery and rape; and, by special criminal law that is premised on an expectation of privacy, such as the discredited offences regarding women’s modesty in sections 354 and 509 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC), and the new offences of voyeurism and stalking contained in sections 354C and 354D of the IPC.

The law also privileges communications that are made through telephones, letters, and emails by regulating the manner of their interception in special circumstances. Conditional interception provisions with procedural safeguards – which, for several reasons, are flawed and ineffective – exist to protect the privacy of such communications in section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, section 26 of the Indian Post Office Act, 1898, and section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

Territorial privacy, which is afforded by possession of private property, is ordinarily protected by the broad offence of trespass – in India, these are the offences of criminal trespass, house trespass, and lurking house-trespass contained in sections 441 to 443 of the IPC – and house-breaking, which is akin to the offence of breaking and entering in other jurisdictions, in section 445 of the IPC.

Some measure of protection is provided to biometric information, such as fingerprints and DNA, by limiting their lawful collection by the state: sections 53, 53A, and 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 permit collections of biometric information from arrestees in certain circumstances; this is in addition to a colonial-era collection regime created by the Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920. However, nothing expressly prohibits the police or anybody else from non-consensually developing DNA profiles from human material that is routinely left behind by our bodies, for instance, saliva on restaurant cutlery or hair at the barbershop.

Physical surveillance, by which a person is visually monitored to invade locational privacy, is also inadequately regulated. Besides man-on-woman stalking, which was criminalised only one year ago, no effective measures exist to otherwise protect locational privacy. Indian courts regularly employ their injunctive power but have been loath to issue equitable remedies such as restraining orders to secure privacy. Police surveillance, which is usually covert, is an executive function that is practised with wide latitude under every state police statute and government-issued rules and regulations thereunder with little or no oversight. The risk of misuse of these powers is compounded by the increasingly widespread use of surveillance cameras sans regulation.

Other technologies too compromise privacy: GPS-enabled mobile phones offer precise locational information, presumably consensually; cell-tower tracking, almost always non-consensually, is ordered by Indian police without any procedurally built-in safeguards; radio frequency identification to locate vehicles is sought to be made mandatory; and, satellite-based surveillance is available to intelligence agencies, none of which are registered or regulated unlike in other liberal democracies.

None of these laws applies a uniform privacy standard nor are they measured against a commonly understood meaning of privacy. The lack of a statutory definition is not the issue; the lack of a statute that expresses the legislative will of a democracy to forge a common understanding of privacy to inform all kinds of human activity is the concern. Ironically, the impetus to draft a privacy law has come from abroad. Foreign senders of personal information – credit card data, home addresses, phone numbers, and the like – to India’s information technology and outsourcing industry demand institutionalised protection for their privacy.

Pressure from the European Union, which has the world’s strongest information privacy standards and with which India is currently negotiating a free trade agreement, to enact a data protection regime to address privacy has not gone unanswered. The Indian government – specifically, the Department of Personnel and Training, the same department that administers the Right to Information Act, 2005 – is currently drafting a privacy law to govern data protection and surveillance. At stake is the continued growth of India’s information technology and outsourcing sectors that receive significant amounts of European personal data for processing, which drives national exports and gross domestic product.

For its part, the Supreme Court has examined more than a few privacy claims to find, intermittently and unconvincingly, that there is a constitutional right to privacy, but the contours of this right remain vague. In 1962, the Supreme Court rejected the existence of a privacy right in Kharak Singh’s case which dealt with intrusive physical surveillance by the police. The court was not unanimous; the majority of judges expressly rejected the notion of locational privacy while declaring that privacy was not a constituent of personal liberty, a lone dissenting judge found the opposite to be true and, furthermore, held that surveillance had a chilling effect on freedom. In 1975, in the Gobind case that presented substantially similar facts, the Supreme Court leaned towards, but held short of, recognising a right to privacy. It did find that privacy flowed from personal autonomy, which bears the influence of American jurisprudence, but subjected it to the interests of government; the latter prevailed.

However, in the PUCL case of 1997 that challenged inadequately regulated wiretaps, the Supreme Court declared that phone conversations were protected by a fundamental right to privacy that flowed from Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. To intrude upon this right, the court said, a law was necessary that is just, fair, and reasonable. If this principle were to be extended beyond communications privacy to, say, identity cards, the Aadhar project that is being implemented without the sanction of a law from Parliament would be judicially stopped.

But what is meant by “law”? Is it only the law of our Constitution and courts? What of the law that governed Indian societies before European colonisation brought the word ‘privacy’ to our legal system? Classical Hindu law – distinct from colonial and post-independence Hindu law – also recognised and enforced expectations of privacy in different contexts. It recognised the sanctity of the home and family, the autonomy of the community, the inviolability of property, and prescribed penalties for those who breached these norms. So, too, does Islamic law: all schools of Islamic jurisprudence – ‘fiqh’ – recognise privacy as an enforceable right. Different words and concepts are used to secure this right, and these words have meanings and connotations of their own. But, the hermeneutics of privacy notwithstanding, this belies the common view that privacy is not an Indian value. Privacy may or may not be a cultural norm, but it has existed in India and South Asia in different forms for millennia.

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