In a landmark judgment in 2017, the Supreme Court of India recognized the ‘right to privacy’ as a fundamental right of every Indian citizen. This essential human right extends to every citizen in the world, and should be protected by all governments. Naturally, it ought to be recognized as an indispensable democratic value.
In the famous story of creation, God covered Adam and Eve with animal skins. His act illustrated that humans were not meant to live naked and exposed. God provided clothing to protect the privacy of both the body and the person.
Yet with the growth of human civilization, and now with advanced technology, this basic right is often greatly impaired. It is dehumanizing when some of India’s low caste and poor have to bathe semi-naked in public in crowded slums and villages. Thankfully, India’s Prime Minister Modi made a singular achievement in preserving human privacy and dignity by building hundreds of thousands of toilets across India in the ‘Clean India’ campaign.
Unfortunately, most governments today ascribe to themselves god-like powers, attempting to know the private lives of all citizens. But when privacy is violated, free will is jeopardized. God knows all, yet does not violate our free will.
Governments around the world, including my own Indian government, stand accused of technological snooping on societal leaders—specifically, using Pegasus software. Pegasus is sold only to governments, not individuals, which in itself implies a layer of power that is assumed by the State. Pegasus’ stated goal is to save lives. Its founders claim the intention to catch criminals, terrorists, drug traffickers, and human traffickers, not to destroy the lives of civil society leaders, activists, or political opponents. Now, they propose the need for a global cyber security body that monitors the misuse of this spreading technology. The free world must demand the cessation of free-wheeling snooping before it’s too late to shut pandora’s box.
Journalists, politicians, and human rights activists are all principal targets of snooping. But it’s not just leaders. Anyone who uses a smartphone faces the specter of their essential human right to privacy being compromised. The kinds of information available to the state and ‘big tech’ include our voice biometrics, spending habits, location, earnings, friendships, and private health details. On top of this, software can easily infect our mobile phones and harvest the rest of our information.
Right now, the right to privacy is treated as dispensable by those who can profit from it, or use it in the name of national security. The snooping state has been especially a growing problem ever since individual rights were compromised in order to keep citizens safe during President Bush’s war on terror.
‘National security’ is an all-encompassing umbrella often used to justify illegal activities against free people. The infamous Edward Snowden rightly stated that today’s cache of 50,000 ‘persons of interest’ telephone numbers will become tomorrow’s 50 million. What’s more, in America the FBI has been caught illegally snooping on those who don’t subscribe to the political ideology of those with power in the bureau.
The misuse of power to gather, collect, and interpret the personal information of its citizens is a grave breach of trust as is big tech’s use of sophisticated algorithms to monitor individuals for commercial purposes.
There is nothing neutral about the state nor big tech. Neither are inanimate entities. In democracies, the State has a contract with the people who have voted those leaders into power. When the upholding of fundamental rights is violated, the state’s legitimacy no longer exists.
India Supreme Court Justice D. Y. Chandrachud was one of the justices who unanimously upheld the right to privacy as a fundamental right. He grounded the right to privacy in dignity, liberty, autonomy, bodily and mental integrity, self-determination and across a spectrum of protected rights. Chandrachud declared, “Dignity cannot exist without privacy. Privacy is the ultimate expression of the sanctity of the individual. It is a constitutional value which straddles across the spectrum of fundamental rights and protects for the individual a zone of choice and self-determination.”
Without the right and protection of our personal space, our private thoughts, our conversations, and our personal family life, we will suffer a gradual death socially and creatively—both of which are tied to the individual God-given freedoms of thought and expression.
Will governments continue to violate our sacrosanct democratic values with impunity? They will if we don’t push leaders around the world to permanently enshrine the intrinsic human right to privacy in the rule of law. The U.S. Congress needs to pass laws to ensure we don’t end up under a digital dictatorship. They are often the first mover on these issues, and if they take action I’m confident that other nations will follow suit. For the wellbeing of individual people, and for nations and civilizations to flourish, illegal snooping must end.
Joseph D’Souza is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, which delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcasts of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and president of the All India Christian Council.