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CIS Statement on Right to Privacy Judgment

Posted by Amber Sinha at Aug 28, 2017 02:25 PM |
In an emphatic endorsement of the right to privacy, a nine judge constitutional bench unanimously upheld a fundamental right to privacy. The events leading to this bench began during the hearings in the ongoing Aadhaar case, when in August 2015, Mukul Rohatgi, the then Attorney General stated that there is no constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy.

reliance was on two Supreme Court judgments in MP Sharma v Satish Chandra (1954) and Kharak Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh (1962): both cases, decided by eight- and six-judge benches respectively, denied the existence of a constitutional right to privacy. As the subsequent judgments which upheld the right to privacy were by smaller benches, he claimed that MP Sharma and Kharak Singh still prevailed over them, until they were overruled by a larger bench. This landmark judgment was in response to a referral order to clear the confusion over the status of privacy as a right.

We, at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) welcome this judgement and applaud the depth and scope of the Supreme Court’s reasoning. CIS has been producing research on the different aspects of the right to privacy and its implications for the last seven years and had the privilege of serving on the Justice AP Shah Committee and contributing to the Report of the Group of Experts on Privacy.[1] We are honoured that some of our research has also been cited by the judgment.[2] Such judicial recognition is evidence of the impact sound research can have on policymaking.

In the course of a 547 page judgment, the bench affirmed the fundamental nature of the right to privacy reading it into the values of dignity and liberty. The judgment is instructive in its reference to scholarly works and jurisprudence not only in India but other legal systems such as USA, South Africa, EU and UK, while recognising a broad right to privacy with various dimensions across spatial, informational and decisional spheres. We note with special appreciation that women’s bodily integrity and citizens’ sexual orientation are among those aspects of privacy that were clearly recognised in the judgment. For researchers studying privacy and its importance, this judgment is of great value as it provides clear reasoning to reject oft-quoted arguments which are used to deny privacy’s significance. The judgement is also cognizant of the implications of the digital age and emphasise the need for a robust data protection framework.

The right to privacy has been read into into Article 21 (Right to life and liberty), and Part III (Chapter on Fundamental Rights) of the Constitution. This means that any limitation on the right in the form of reasonable restrictions must not only satisfy the tests evolved under Article 21, but where loss of privacy leads to infringement on other rights, such as chilling effects of surveillance on free speech, the tests for constitutionality under those provisions for also be satisfied by the limiting action. This provides a broad protection to citizens’ privacy which may not be easily restricted. We expect that this judgment will have far reaching impacts, not just with respect to the immediate Aadhaar case, but also to in a score of other matters such as protection of sexual choice by decriminalising Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, oversight of statutory search and seizure provisions such as Section 132 of the Income Tax Act, personal data collection and processing practices by both state and private actors and mass surveillance programmes in the interest of national security.

As this judgment comes in response to a referral order, the judges were not dealing with any questions of fact to ground the legal principles in. Subsequent judgments which deal with privacy will apply these principles and further evolve the contours of this right on a case-by-case basis. For now, we welcome this judgment and look forward to its consistent application in the future.


[1]. http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/rep_privacy.pdf

[2]. CIS was quoted in the judgement on footnote 46, page 33 and 34: http://supremecourtofindia.nic.in/pdf/LU/ALL%20WP(C)%20No.494%20of%202012%20Right%20to%20Privacy.pdf The quote is " Illustratively, the Centre for Internet and Society has two interesting articles tracing the origin of privacy within Classical Hindu Law and Islamic Law. See Ashna Ashesh and Bhairav Acharya ,“Locating Constructs of Privacy within Classical Hindu Law”, The Centre for Internet and Society, available at https://cis-india.org/internet-governance/blog/loading-constructs-of-privacy-within-classical-hindu-law. See also Vidushi Marda and Bhairav Acharya, “Identifying Aspects of Privacy in Islamic Law”, The Centre for Internet and Society, available at https://cis-india.org/internet-governance/blog/identifying-aspects-of-privacy-in-islamic-law " Further, research commissioned by CIS cited in the judgment includes a reference in page 201 footnote 319, "Bhairav Acharya, “The Four Parts of Privacy in India”, Economic & Political Weekly (2015), Vol. 50 Issue 22, at page 32." 

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