India is the fifth most tracked nation by American intelligence agencies, writes Maitreyee Boruah
Have you been posting pictures and messages with gay abandon on your social networking sites or having personal discussions on instant chat or video messaging and thinking that no one other than the intended recipient(s) has access to it? Well, going by the recent revelation that government agencies, and that too from the US, have been spying on our internet usage and collating private information, even the most hardcore security settings for your online data are apparently of no use.
According to former US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee Edward Snowden’s testimony, the US National Security Agency ( NSA) has been using major tech giants to spy on private information of users around the world. And India is the fifth most tracked nation by the US intelligence system. But isn’t this a direct infringement on our right to privacy? Or are such measures the need of the hour, given the increasing incidences of terror acts across the world?
What should the Indian government do?
Recently, a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) was filed in the Indian Supreme Court on the issue of the web snooping by the US. The PIL sought the Centre to initiate action against internet companies for sharing information with foreign authorities, which amounts to breach of contract and violation of the right to privacy.
“First, we need to urgently enact a horizontal privacy law, which articulates privacy principles and institutes the office of the privacy commissioner. Second, we need to promote the use of encryption and other privacy-enhancing technologies. The use of foreign internet infrastructure by those in public offices should be banned, except in the case of public dissemination. And last, but not the least, take action against online firms that have access to personal data of users and violate the privacy of Indian citizens through the office of the regulator,” suggests Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bangalore-based research organization, Centre for Internet and Society.
Anja Kovacs, project director at the Internet Democracy Project in India, meanwhile, wants the Indian government to assert itself. “The best the Indian government can do is to demand that this kind of snooping does not happen. However, it can’t ensure that such episodes won’t happen in the future, as there is no enforceable global legal framework to deal with online snooping.”
Era of the Big Brother?
Given the lack of legal support, does it mean that internet users have no right to privacy? “We do have a right to privacy. Unfortunately, our right is not respected. By and large, unless they use special tools to protect themselves, internet users do not have any real privacy in many countries, including India,” says Anja, adding, “The right to privacy is not explicitly included in the Constitution, and the Privacy Bill continues to be pending. Also, Indian intelligence agencies are not under supervision of the Parliament, which is an important weakness in the accountability system.” Echoing Anja, Sunil says, “In India, unfortunately, our right to privacy is not sufficiently protected. Indian laws are not strong enough to safeguard privacy of Internet users.”
Anger in the online community
A large number of internet users who we spoke to said they were “shocked” after hearing about the US government’s spying mechanism. “The recent revelation of snooping by the US government is a clear case of intrusion into our privacy. It is absolutely illegal,” says 24-year-old IT professional Subodh Gupta.
Anisha Nair, a college student, feels that in the name of curbing terrorism, the US government is “making a mockery of our privacy”.
What they say
We spend 30% of our lives on online activities. So our privacy is already out in the open. We shouldn’t post all our information online. â€” Priya Chetty Rajagopal, VP of a recruitment firm
Governments across the world should respect the privacy of netizens. We do a lot of financial and business activities online and if that is open to scrutiny, then it is scary. Hussain, DJ
It is rather annoying knowing that all my online activities can be accessed by others. I want complete privacy, as far as my online activities are concerned. â€” Aindrita Ray, actress