Ankitha Joshy, India
APMA 2019

On 02 May 2011, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by the United States Marines in Operation Neptune Spear. The whole world celebrated this victory over “terrorism.” I was very curious how they traced bin Laden’s hideout. My search led me to Wikipedia, where I found out two interesting sentences–using satellite photos” and “to confirm the identities and gender of the residents.”

Now, you may be asking: what are the “big” findings in these two sentences? After all, the United States government has done a wonderful job by killing that notorious criminal who was, the brains behind the 9/11 attack in the U.S. They’re the saviour of mankind!

Trust me, I was also in the same boat before realizing the link between “disappearing” and “Global Surveillance System.” We don’t really get worried when we hear that the US military is using their technology to find a “bad” person. But in reality, governments are using the same methods to find their critics and make them disappear.

How does this “tracing and disappearing system“ of government work? The answer to this question is simple: by breaching the right to privacy. Yes, with the help of technology, especially 4,635 surveillance satellites  (Andy, 2017), they can tell you what you are doing right now in your bedroom and even what your underwear looks like! Thus, it seems like the right to privacy has been crucified with a tag of RIP (rest in peace) and waiting for the glorious resurrection. Every individual in this world is entitled to the right to privacy, and measures should be taken to address its violation in the advent of new technology.

In this digital era, every moment in our lives is being updated on social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. Upon installation, these apps will show their privacy policy which will be more than two pages written in good legal framework which we, the common people, don’t exactly understand. So we just go to the last page and put a tick on “I agree” column. By doing this, service providers can access—and harvest—your personal data, including your contacts, pictures, and location, data that is precious in this digital era.

Take, for example, 4chan, an imageboard where anyone can post images and commentaries online anonymously. On 31 August 2014, 4chan posted 500 private photos of celebrities, mostly women, which were stored on I-cloud, the cloud storage facility provided by the world’s most “secure” service provider, Apple. In April last year, Facebook banned the app myPersonality for mishandling Facebook user data by sharing the information with companies and researchers (Leskin, 2015).

These incidents raise a question: where does our privacy end?

When the goal of the right to privacy comes to the government’s court, it is like the crops are eaten by the fences itself. Often, government agencies handing the data of their citizens are being criticized for sharing them to satisfy some State agendas. In India, The Tribunal, an investigative newspaper, “purchased” access to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) site, where the newspaper can retrieve private data of more than one billion people, including their names, addresses, photos, phone numbers, postal codes, and email addresses (The Tribunal, Jan4 2018).

This is happening all over the world. For the last ten years in the U.S., citizens’ private data has been leaked at least ten times (DigitalGuardian). Swedish Transport Agency, Russia’s Federal Security Service, US Voter Database, Iranian Nuclear Facilities are some other examples of data breaching from government departments (Express VPN). In these cases, the duty bearer itself has failed to protect the right to privacy of its citizens.

At this juncture, the government and private agencies should realize and respect the right of every individual to his/her privacy. The government must protect from all these privacy rights violations, whether they are done by government or private agencies. Measures should be taken to address the right to privacy violation in the advent of new technology.

Service providers like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc should communicate their policy on data handling more directly through, say, videos. As most of the customers are unaware of the data storage/sharing pattern of the service provider, they can create simple videos in regional languages communicating all the details about the usage of data updated or taken from its users. They should also provide the choice to the customer to withdraw from the agreement at any time. If the service provider is sharing any type of data–mobile number, email id, etc–prior consent should be taken from the customer every time.

The government should also implement strict rules about data-sharing and closely observe the activities of private agencies.  Also, as the duty bearer, the government should provide more transparency on data sharing and the entry to data should be restricted to government agencies. Individuals have the right to know where their details are shared.

We can forget about the past, the fact that we are being tracked from the sky, the data breaches done by government and private agencies. But at present and in future, they have to respect and protect our right to privacy. The government has to implement stringent laws on data sharing of the private agencies. Common people should get awareness about the “big games” happening behind the screen of installing a social media app. The government has to make sure that “the crops are not eaten by the fence itself.”

My privacy, my right.



*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

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