What is democracy if not dissent? What is dissent if not plurality? How is plurality achieved if not by protecting privacy? Is there privacy in a State of surveillance? The inducive environment to dissent and express pluralistic opinions is oxygenated by the fundamental right to privacy. If a democracy cannot guarantee privacy to its citizens, perhaps, it is not a free democracy.
The Pegasus spyware scandal has freshened memories of the scary revelations made by Edward Snowden surrounding mass surveillance of US citizens by the government. An international collaboration of 17 media organisations has revealed that at least 300 Indian citizens became potential targets of the Israeli spyware, Pegasus. At least 10 of these alleged targets have given positive reports in an independent forensic test conducted by Amnesty International.
The suggestion of an individually targeted surveillance system and its real time execution is a nerve-racking threat to the fundamental right to privacy and lawful subsistence of the right to free speech and expression under Articles 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. Surveillance on all four pillars of this democracy — the executive, judiciary, legislature and the media — cannot be ignored. If there is even an iota of truth in these allegations, contrary to what the newly appointed IT Minister has to say, we are on the list of totalitarians and semi-authoritarian governments using this technology to thrive a surveillance State.
Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon advocated the surveillance of inmates in a prison where the central tower implants the fear of constantly being watched upon, thus inducing conformity and self-censorship. He believed that a democratic society can be controlled to maintain order and uniformity by surveillance. Dissent and protest can be crushed by imposing order and discipline to suit the needs of the government. What is Pegasus if not Bentham’s Panoptic Tower and dissenters, the inmates of this prison? Text messages, emails, WhatsApp calls and group discussions, audio and video feeds, location details, expenditure trail, etc are now the post-modern forms of the Panoptic Tower entirely absorbed by the society. The consequences of this post-modern Panoptic digital surveillance are the unnerving legitimacy of unilateral thought, stifling of dissent and ultimately the death of democracy.
Dangers of surveillance
The argument of “I have nothing to hide” is also problematic and hollow given the fact that a large number of people chose to self-censor in the face of increasing clampdowns on dissenting citizens. Surveillance leads to identification of dissenters, which prompts measures such as banning of the social accounts, slapping of security legislations such as the UAPA and the NSA without any legal basis (evident by the abysmally low conviction rates).
The use of Facial Recognition Technology to capture facial data by the Delhi Police to file sedition charges against anti-CAA protesters is a mockery of privacy with its brazen 98 per cent failure rate and in the absence of any legal framework on artificial intelligence. The new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 have also been flagged by the UN Special Rapporteurs for having serious implications on the right to freedom of expression and privacy by virtue of its “vague and arbitrary” language. Media organisations are threatened by way of IT raids as reports of the Income Tax officials snooping into editorial department of Dainik Bhaskar Group emerge. Freelance writers and journalists are met with an unending trail of irrelevant charges.
These instances have a massive chilling effect on the common man who then choses to restrain, self-censor and ultimately submit his/her freedom of speech at the hands of a surveillance State. No wonder Sweden based V-Dem Institute in its latest report terms India as an ‘electoral autocracy’ and the EIU Index as a ‘flawed democracy’, as its rank slips down to 142nd of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. The Personal Data Protection Bill 2019, which was supposed to ensure every citizen’s privacy, in furtherance of the judgment by the Supreme court in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, has been postponed yet again as a fourth extension was granted to the parliamentary committee to submit its report on the PDP.
The existing affairs in this country signal an increasing tendency towards a surveillance State of highly restrictive nature in the absence of effective checks and balances. Being a law student, I pity at the status quo with regards to the shrinking size of free and pluralistic discussion. Students refrain from expressing their free minds as the government now strives forward to mute voices and infiltrate private spaces. Privacy, and hence the free speech and consequently democracy, are in danger as the claws of surveillance tighten its grip. It somehow feels like living in George Orwell’s 1984. I wish it didn’t.
Shreyam Sharma is a student at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, Hyderabad. Views are personal.