There was jubilation in the ranks of an embattled opposition, courtesy a nine-member Supreme Court bench decision, which ruled that right to privacy is a fundamental right for Indian citizens. The Constitution bench in an historic judgment, restricted collection of personal data, its usage and dissemination setting aside its own earlier verdicts of 1954 and 1962. The implications are far too many for a country with over 1.24 billion population with diverse interests.
Opposition celebration is fired more due to the temporary discomfort that the Narendra Modi government will face given that some of its important projects may be impacted. Congress top leaders’ mobilisation of assorted political and citizen groups against the government on the right to privacy were unprecedented given their reactions, the charge being led by both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
The opposition parties and ruling NDA face-off notwithstanding, dispassionate analysis of the judgment will throw up several issues. The most important is the future of the Aadhaar project, which is virtually linked to every financial transaction that an individual undertakes and the benefits that the government offers to vulnerable sections of the society. The intelligentsia and neo-liberals may gloat over the judgment, but the truth is that it restricts government’s usage of Aadhaar platform to dole out benefits to the poor and root out corruption. The question is, if the government could save Rs 54,000 crore by just linking some schemes to Aadhaar, can the Supreme Court restrict its usage by the official agencies?
Be that as it may, the Thursday judgment has fundamentally settled privacy as an inalienable component of right to life. The future of Aadhaar will be decided by a separate bench. Issues like ban on beef and gay sex along with relevant laws may have to be revisited by both states and the Centre if the right to privacy was near absolute as per the Supreme Court. In case of dispute, these tricky issues may become subjects of long drawn courtroom disputes.
Another dimension to the judgment would be the status of indiscriminate sharing of personal information by digital companies in their bid to entice millions of users. WhatsApp sharing its database with its new owners Facebook would be restricted in India as in several other countries globally. The operations of several internet-based companies are bound to come under closer scrutiny, even if one user approaches courts for remedy. A cursory look at privacy laws globally points to the fact that right to privacy is not absolute even in the most liberal geographies.
For instance European convention on human rights that provides right to privacy comes with several riders. The 1973 Data Act in Sweden provides protection to data collected and stored on computers. But, no one can prevent government agencies from collecting personal data. In fact, every citizen has to quote his or her personal identification number in official interactions with the government agencies. In United States, the Privacy Act of 1974 restricts arbitrary use of personal information by federal agencies.
Germany today has stringent privacy laws and companies like Google and Facebook face restrictions. Privacy laws world over have allowed varying degrees of freedom to their citizens in sync with their history, evolution, experiences, aspirations and their futuristic journey. India, of course, can be no exception to this rule. When India’s highest court has determined the right to privacy, by no stretch of imagination should it be read that the Aadhaar platform would come crumbling down. Tackling corruption, systemic inadequacies and security issues cannot be denied. Taking a pragmatic interpretation of right to privacy with inbuilt firewalls to protect one’s personal data is the only way forward.