In 2013, Edward Snowden, a computer expert and former CIA administrator, released confidential Government documents to the press about the existence of Government surveillance programmes. According to many legal experts and the US Government, his action violated the Espionage Act of 1971, which identified the leak of State secret as an act of treason. Yet, despite the fact that he broke the law, Snowden argued that he had a moral obligation to act. He gave a justification for his “whistle blowing” by stating that he had a duty “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” According to Snowden, the Government’s violation of privacy had to be exposed regardless of legality since more substantive issues of social action and public morality were involved here. The Attorney General of the United States did not find Snowden’s rationale convincing. According to him, Snowden caused harm to the national security and had to be held accountable for his actions.
Snowden is since living in exile in Russia. This incident deeply divided American people. Polls taken in the US in 2013 and the years immediately after showed an almost equal split between those who viewed him as a traitor and those who saw him as a hero. However, over a period of time, many people who disliked him personally are prepared to accept that they are now living in a better, freer and safer world because of the revelations of mass surveillance.
The issue of the right to privacy of the citizen and the right of the government to carry out surveillance on the citizens for various reasons has always been seen differently by the citizens and government all over the world. While government justifies the surveillance on the ground of public interest like prevention of terrorism, drug-trafficking, smuggling, corruption, tax-evasion etc., the citizens consider it a breach of privacy. It is often argued by the law enforcement authorities that government surveillance programs do not threaten privacy unless they uncover illegal activities, and that if they do uncover illegal activities, the person committing these activities does not have the right to keep them private.
Many citizens also support surveillance using "I've got nothing to hide" argument that say that a person should not worry about government or surveillance if they've got "nothing to hide." The motto "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear" has been used by government across the world to morally justify their power of surveillance. However, citizens want their right of privacy to be respected since they may at times engage into intimate and personal communication, which must never be known to any other person.
The battle between a citizen’s right to privacy and the right of the government to snoop on their privacy has been going on around the world for a long time. India too has been battling the issue for decades. In 1990, the former Prime Minister of India, Mr. Chandra Shekhar, alleged that the Government was illegally tapping telephones of 27 politicians, including his own. Subsequently, a CBI investigation revealed widespread wiretapping undertaken by the Government. The matter reached the Supreme Court through a public interest petition filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). In 1997, the Supreme Court of India pronounced its judgment in this case. The Supreme Court, while rejecting the argument that the government action was ultra-vires as per the Constitution of India, held that the two statutory pre-conditions, namely, the occurrence of any ‘public emergency’ or in the ‘interest of public safety’, have to be satisfied. It also stated that the right to privacy “is a part of the right to ‘life’ and ‘personal liberty’ enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution”. Further, in August 2017, a nine- judge bench of the Supreme Court in the Puttaswamy Case gave legitimacy to the right to privacy under the Constitution of India. However, the government continues to carry out surveillance not only in the name of national interest or on the ground of public emergency and public safety, but often for political reasons targeting the leaders of political parties in the opposition.
It is true that government has the right to surveillance in the national interest since it is due to the surveillance done by the government over terrorist organisations and sleeper cells that they get to know about the plans of the terrorists and prevent the acts of terrorism. Surveillance has also been found to be extremely effective in tracking down the criminals after they have committed the crime. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) uses surveillance to collect evidence and arrest the corrupt public servants. The Income Tax department is able to detect many cases of tax evasion using surveillance. A country is arguably much safer when surveillance is done, rather than not.
However, the government cannot assume the absolute power of surveillance in view of vested interest of the leaders in power or political reasons. Recently in October 30 2019, Facebook, the parent company of WhatsApp, confirmed that Pegasus, sophisticated snooping software developed by Israel’s NSO Group, was being used to target Indian journalists, activists, lawyers and senior government officials.
The journalists and activists are believed to have been targets of surveillance for a two-week period until May 2019, when the Indian national election was held. The Indian National Congress party alleged that it was the Narendra Modi-led government that had been snooping on journalists, activists, lawyers and senior government officials. It was also alleged that their leaders, including Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, were also targeted.
It is thus evident that the government often misuses its power of surveillance. They must not be allowed to breach the privacy of the citizens unless they have violated law or committed a heinous crime. The surveillance of the opposition leaders, civil right activists and the people who dissent with the government in the matter of national interest can’t be justified.
It is, therefore, required that if any government agency violates the procedures and commits breach of privacy, they must be punished in accordance with the law. The Honourable Supreme Court guidelines in respect of right to privacy must be strictly followed in this regard. Unless the violators of privacy with no justifiable reasons are punished, their political masters would continue to misuse their power to take advantage of their position with impunity. Let us remember that right to privacy is equal to life of liberty as already declared by the Supreme Court. We must follow the Constitution and respect the dignity of the citizens who are the true masters in a democracy.