In today’s fast-paced world, data is rampantly becoming a precious resource. With the rapid influx and prevalence of electronics in our lives, we are interacting with a large amount of data on a daily basis. The site which we are reading this article from is itself a form of data; the apps which give various notifications daily are collectors and storehouses of data as well.
With the increasing significance of data and its scale of interaction with our daily lives, a large host of untoward activities such as cybercrimes, money laundering, terrorism, data fraud, identity theft, etc. also crop up, which necessitates a need for keeping a watch for any potential disruptions.
We have seen a sharp increase in the amount of surveillance that has been done by various states around the world to keep a watch on potential criminals and to make sure that any untoward activities, which can be detrimental to the state do not happen. This has fueled many countries to prepare and fund massive structures for surveillance of their citizens such as fingerprint databases, facial scans of citizens, retinal data, social security numbers such as Aadhaar, PAN cards, passports, etc.
There also exist numerous examples of state surveillance in novels, which have unerringly predicted the future if state surveillance reigned supreme. A perfect example is George Orwell’s famous book 1984, which showed a grim future in which every detail of a person’s life was monitored via the telescreen, an instrument that records and transmits the activity of a person to the government.
A variety of such examples are also present throughout the book, such as the Thought police and the infamous doublethink phrases (which includes two contradictory words in a single line) such as “War is peace”, “Freedom is slavery”, etc., some of which have eerily come true in the present day.
State surveillance mechanisms around the world
Many of the statutes that have enabled such surveillance mechanisms are often worded with open-textured language, which leaves them prone to misuse, leading to massive consequences, both seen and unseen, which can cause a substantial loss of public confidence in the state and its machinery if such wrongdoings come to light.
An example of a surveillance state in today’s interconnected world is North Korea, where almost every aspect of people’s lives is under constant surveillance, where daily life is marked by a high amount of censorship on sites that people visit through the internet, who can be contacted via phone calls and even with regards to what opinion the public holds. Moreover, sites that do not conform with the propaganda of the government are banned, which effectively renders people of North Korea with zero access to the free and open internet.
A recent example of an absurd decision that the North Korean government has taken was the ban on laughing, drinking, and shopping for a period of 11 days on the death anniversary of the former leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il. This ban on trivial activities such as laughing and drinking seems to be very arbitrary by nature since laughing is something people do on a regular basis but banning an activity that is essential for the daily lives of citizens such as shopping can be construed as a clear violation of fundamental rights of the people. However, this goes on unchecked with offenders of these bans being clutched to camps and detention centers.
Pegasus spyware and its impact
Another contemporary example of state surveillance mechanisms being used around the world is Pegasus, a spyware which was purported to be used by several countries on its citizens, which comprised of high-profile targets such as ministers, government critics and political opponents, which was revealed by Project Pegasus, a global initiative conducted by investigative journalists around the world to expose the workings of this software.
This spyware was developed by an Israeli firm named NSO Group Technologies for keeping tabs and checks on terrorists and criminals by security agencies, but soon it found its way into the hands of authoritarian governments, which have led to its misuse. What makes it extremely dangerous is its zero-click software nature, meaning that a person does not need to click any malicious link or download any malicious file to infect their phones with Pegasus. The software can run and extract data from the target’s phone without any interaction with the user itself.
In the case of India, many political leaders such as Rahul Gandhi and several other Congress party officials were alleged to be victims of the spyware. Election Strategist Prashant Kishor was also alleged to be one of the many high-profile victims of the spyware. However, this does not end here; there are many other lesser-known social workers, legal professionals, and artists who were also targets of the spyware.
A notable name, who was also allegedly a victim of Pegasus was Father Stan Swamy, a noted tribal rights activist who fought for tribal rights and upliftment of downtrodden communities. These instances of rampant state surveillance necessitate strong privacy laws which have been rightly put by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud as “creating a regime requires a careful and sensitive balance between individual interests and the interests of the State”
Potential solutions for excessive state surveillance and conclusion
With regards to privacy laws in India, we do not have a law in force that exclusively deals with privacy and how data should be handled. However, a law which exclusively deals with the same was proposed, viz, the Personal Data Protection Bill (the Act), which had some pros like operating procedures for companies who handle data, but the bill also had its fair share of cons, most of which related to excessive exemptions being given to the Government from the ambit of the said Act.
Due to these reasons, the Personal Data Protection Bill had been given to a Joint Parliamentary Committee for further improvement, but despite being refined by the Parliamentary committee for a significant amount of time, the Personal Data Protection Bill still carries its flaws, which are now even more concrete, with a much larger amount of leeway given to government and its associated agencies from the ambit of said Act, while increasing penalties for private companies.
All these instances necessitate a thorough look at the present nature of state surveillance, which should be reformed appropriately on a war footing. One could only imagine what would happen if the delicate and acceptable borders of surveillance are crossed and it is turned into a tool for oppression, making the much-feared world of the novel 1984 a reality.