“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself”
– George Orwell, 1984
Supreme Court orders don’t usually start with quotes from George Orwell, but its order of 27 October 2021 on the Pegasus matter does. The first paragraph of India’s top court’s judicial order also uses the term ‘Orwellian’: “The present batch of Writ Petitions raise an Orwellian concern”.
It was through this order that the court appointed a three-member committee to probe charges of using a cyber-weapon and breaching privacy of a hundred Indian civilians, some occupying high constitutional offices. If the findings of the global investigation in 'The Pegasus Project’ are to be believed, it makes India the world’s biggest democracy with the most rampant and unbridled use of the military-grade spying cyberware, which the Israeli firm has maintained it sells only to governments.
In February, the committee submitted a preliminary report, but its final conclusions are yet to come in. Pegasus, as established globally, constitutes one of the most egregious violations of the privacy of the phone (and thereby the owner of the phone) it is deployed to attack. The scandal has shaken the Israeli establishment and serious questions have arisen about the existence of its parent company, NSO.
The French, the US and almost all democracies touched by the scandal have seen their governments responding to the charges and launched investigations – all except India, as its government has stubbornly refused to answer both Parliament and the Chief Justice’s bench.
Privacy Is Not an 'Elite' Issue, It Concerns All
The belief that the government can brazen this out rests on the fundamental assumption that privacy is not linked to democracy or citizens’ rights in the public imagination. It is dismissed as a niche or ‘elite’ concern. The former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, also callously fed this misconception because it worked for his data-sucking business. He said: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
After Pegasus broke, there have been more developments with serious consequences for privacy, and which should ring alarm bells for the very survival of democracy. One is the law allowing for the linking of Aadhar with electoral rolls, and the second is the rampant growth in CCTVs and the use of facial technology as a solution for battling crimes. With 2.75 lakh CCTVs already, Delhi tops Paris, Singapore and London, according to a survey that was conducted across 150 cities. There are plans to take the number up to 4.15 lakh. On Telangana’s CCTV and facial recognition technology system that doesn’t have a legal basis, Amnesty International had issued a warning late last year, calling out the invasion of private spaces.
Why Privacy is Power
The work of Prof Carissa Veliz, Associate Professor, Faculty of Philosophy at the Institute for Ethics in AI at the University of Oxford, and more specifically, her book Privacy Is Power, should be a manifesto of our times. As governments and big information corporates seek to vacuum out data from an unsuspecting public, this book outlines very carefully and precisely the risks of privacy violations for democracy, with 147 pages and its various chapters looking at different dimensions of the risks.
There are obvious concerns such as password and bank account thefts if password privacy is breached. But if governments or companies like Google or Facebook know too much about you, it is not just the sale of data that should worry people. Citizens fail to realise how giving away data callously is not cost-free, it returns to haunt them and renders them vulnerable to manipulation and control.
When powerful people, governments or large businesses can know everything there is to know about citizens – their interactions, opinions, fears and concerns – they can use the data to classify those who are not toeing the line and discriminate against them. But more importantly, they can build psychometric profiles and manipulate them, making real choices impossible.
Chapter 3 of the book, entitled Privacy is Power, helps make a persuasive case of erosions in privacy being a sure shot recipe for the destruction of democracy in the digital age. Veliz writes on “data vultures” and says, “Governments know more about their citizens than ever before. The Stasi, for instance, only managed to have files on roughly a third of the population of East Germany, even if it aspired to have complete information on all citizens. Intelligence agencies today hold much more information on all of the population. For starters, a significant proportion of people volunteer private information on social networks.”
She cites filmmaker Laura Poitras as saying that “Facebook is a gift to intelligence agencies”. As among other possibilities, “That kind of information gives governments the ability to anticipate protests and arrest people pre-emptively. Having the power to know about organized resistance before it happens and being able to squash it in time is a tyranny’s dream.”
Free Press & Privacy Go Hand in Hand
Speaking to me this week, Prof Veliz summarised her arguments:
“Privacy protects us from abuses of power. That's why it's so timelessly important. There will always be the risk that people will try to abuse their power for as long as people are people. And in countries in which the rule of law is weaker, that risk is much higher and privacy is even more important.”
She wrote the book before the Pegasus case erupted last year. “I think Pegasus is the most important development after my book has come out (from a privacy perspective). Pegasus is very concerning because journalism is a pillar of free and democratic countries. If journalists don't have privacy, they won't be able to protect themselves or their sources, and without that, journalism will gradually erode. I don't think it's a coincidence that the country most represented in the Pegasus list, Mexico, is also the country in which more journalists get murdered every year.”
Govts Should Be Answerable, Not Citizens
Knowing more about citizens than is necessary (even about those who think that they are small fry and do not matter) – via continual CCTV monitoring, or linking Aadhaar with your voter ID – is a phenomenal step in handing over complete control to the government. To cite Orwell, as the Supreme Court did, the ‘big brother’ phenomenon also shrinks and shrivels democracies. Veliz writes: “When surveillance is everywhere, it becomes safer to keep quiet or to echo the opinions that others accept. But society progresses through listening to the arguments of those who are critical, those who rebel against the status quo.”
Eventually, fostering awareness about why privacy matters in the digital age will be central to maintaining democracy. India’s institutions will need to step up if citizens have to be protected from both governments and corporates behaving like “data vultures”. Conversely, our institutions would go down as guardians who failed if they do not fulfil their remit.
For the matter of Pegasus, there are two crucial questions in the terms of reference of the top court-appointed committee: “Whether any Pegasus suite of spyware was acquired by the Respondent-Union of India, or any State Government, or any central or state agency for use against the citizens of India” and “If any governmental agency has used the Pegasus suite of spyware on the citizens of this country, under what law, rule, guideline, protocol or lawful procedure was such deployment made?”
To ensure that the Centre is forced to cough up answers may be a start to fixing the damaging information skew between government and citizens.
The principle of the government being held accountable has been successfully inverted, and now it is citizens who are being held answerable via overreach into their data.
Protecting citizen privacy is important because it will determine how healthy India’s democracy is. Over to our Institutions, then.
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)