Privacy Matters — Conference Report

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Jan 24, 2011 06:05 AM |
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A one-day conference on Privacy Matters was held on Sunday, 23 January 2011 at the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) Law School in Kolkata. This was the first of a series of eleven conferences on ‘privacy’ that Privacy India is scheduled to host in different Indian cities from January to June this year. Members of Parliament, Sri Manoj Bhattacharya from the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and Sri Nilotpal Basu from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI (M) spoke in the conference. Students, the civil society and lawyers also participated in it.


The conference was held to discuss elements of the privacy legislation that has been proposed to the Parliament of India, and the UID Bill and project. The conference focused on the tensions between privacy and society that exist in India today, and acted as a space for opinion sharing and discussion. Privacy India which was formed under the auspices of  Privacy International, a UK based organization that works to protect the right of privacy around the world, the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), an NGO based in Bangalore, and Society in Action Group (SAG), an NGO based in Delhi joined hands to host this event.

Rajan Gandhi, founder of SAG opened the conference with an explanation of the mandate of Privacy India, the objective of which is of raising awareness, sparking civil action and promoting democratic dialogue around privacy challenges and violations in India.  One of Privacy India's goals is to build consensus towards the promulgation of comprehensive privacy legislation in India through consultations with the public, legislators and the legal and academic community.


The keynote speech was delivered by Dr. Sudhir Krishnaswamy professor of law and governance. Dr. Krishnaswamy began by outlining the present situation of privacy in India. The right to privacy has been read into Sections 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India through case law, which has defined privacy — among other things — as the right to personal autonomy, the right against unreasonable search and seizure, and as a fundamental right that is critical to the person, but does not supersede public or national interest. Dr. Krishnaswamy also raised many intriguing questions including:  what does privacy mean to India — is it linked to a person’s dignity and their honour? Or is it purely concerned with misappropriation of information, and further is privacy in India an issue of the individual or an issue of the family and the community? He also described the philosophical groundings of privacy as being in the right to dignity, the right to autonomy, and the misappropriation of information.        

Privacy Challenges

The conference was spread into three sessions. In the first session Prashant Iyengar, head researcher of the project at Privacy India, spoke about the challenges that India specifically is facing in shaping a privacy legislation including: the need to balance the right to information/transparency and privacy, the need to create a definition of privacy that does not exclude lower classes and is not a negative right, but instead a positive right, and the problem of ubiquitous surveillance that is happening in society today.  Elonnai Hickok, policy analyst at Privacy India, spoke specifically on wire tapping, and the Nira Radia tapes. In her presentation she first outlined other countries definitions of privacy which include: the right to be left alone, the protection from unauthorized searches, and the right to control information about oneself through consent.  Using the case study of Nira Radia and Ratan Tata she spoke about the rising concern of wire tapping in the country as being indicative of a social change and relationship of the state and government. Elonnai also raised questions concerning whether privacy should be made inversely proportional to public figures, and if public interest will always supersede the private right of individuals.

UID and Privacy

The second session of the conference focused on the UID Bill and privacy. Presentations from NUJS student Amba Kak and Sai Vinod raised concerns about the UID project and privacy. Their presentation also compared and contrasted identity schemes of other countries with the UID. A few similarities that they found amongst all scheme were: the collection of data, the processing of data, and the storing of data.  Deva  Prasad from the National Law School of Bangalore presented on constitutional elements of the UID scheme ranging from loopholes in the Bill to connections that can be made when the UID Bill is placed in the larger picture.  Sri Manoj Bhattacharya (MP) from RSP voiced his concerns of the UID, and emphasized that by giving an individual a number which acts as their fundamental identity which they use to function in society, the government in fact is eroding an individual’s actual identity, and that is an invasion of privacy.  Sri Nilotpal Basu (MP) from CPI (M) spoke out strongly against the UID, voicing that his greatest concern with the UID is that it will be a way for corporate bodies to target individuals as consumers, and that privacy legislation could be used as a way for corporate bodies to hide from the public eye.


In the concluding session the floor was opened up to the public for questions and opinion sharing. Many participants shared what they believed needed to be included in privacy legislation, and what issues a privacy legislation needs to address. A few of these include: privacy rights and the media, privacy and the right to information, the privacy rights of minorities, and the privacy rights of the government. Also types of regulatory models for privacy were discussed. For instance, should privacy in India be represented and protected through a data protection law, or should privacy be seen as a fundamental right to privacy? Should privacy be represented through a broad framework, or through sector specific statutes? What should the redressal and enforcement mechanisms look like? 

As seen from the presentations and the comments at the conference one thing which is clear is that privacy is an issue that concerns every person in India. Over the next six months Privacy India will be conducting ten more conferences in different Indian cities to engage the public in dialogues of privacy and raise awareness around the issues of privacy.  The next workshop will be held on 5 February 2011 in Bangalore.

Download the conference summary here

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