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Surveillance and the Indian Constitution - Part 1: Foundations

Posted by Pranesh Prakash at Jan 13, 2014 07:25 PM |
In this insightful seven-part series, Gautam Bhatia looks at surveillance and the right to privacy in India from a constitutional perspective, tracing its genealogy through Supreme Court case law and compares it with the law in the USA.

Note: This was originally posted on the Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy blog.

On previous occasions, we have discussed the ongoing litigation in ACLU v. Clapper in the United States, a challenge to the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk surveillance program. Recall that a short while after the initial Edward Snowden disclosures, The Hindu revealed the extent of domestic surveillance in India, under the aegis of the Central Monitoring System (CMS). The CMS (and what it does) is excellently summarized here. To put thing starkly and briefly:

“With the C.M.S., the government will get centralized access to all communications metadata and content traversing through all telecom networks in India. This means that the government can listen to all your calls, track a mobile phone and its user’s location, read all your text messages, personal e-mails and chat conversations. It can also see all your Google searches, Web site visits, usernames and passwords if your communications aren’t encrypted.”

The CMS is not sanctioned by parliamentary legislation. It also raises serious privacy concerns. In order to understand the constitutional implications, therefore, we need to investigate Indian privacy jurisprudence. In a series of posts, we plan to discuss that.

Privacy is not mentioned in the Constitution. It plays no part in the Constituent Assembly Debates. The place of the right – if it exists – must therefore be located within the structure of the Constitution, as fleshed out by judicial decisions. The first case to address the issue was M. P. Sharma v. Satish Chandra, in 1954. In that case, the Court upheld search and seizure in the following terms:

"A power of search and seizure is in any system of jurisprudence an overriding power of the State for the protection of social security and that power is necessarily regulated by law. When the Constitution makers have thought fit not to subject such regulation to Constitutional limitations by recognition of a fundamental right to privacy, analogous to the American Fourth Amendment, we have no justification to import it, into a totally different fundamental right. by some process of strained construction."

The right in question was 19(1)(f) – the right to property. Notice here that the Court did not reject a right to privacy altogether – it only rejected it in the context of searches and seizures for documents, the specific prohibition of the American Fourth Amendment (that has no analogue in India). This specific position, however, would not last too long, and was undermined by the very next case to consider this question, Kharak Singh.

In Kharak Singh v. State of UP, the UP Police Regulations conferred surveillance power upon certain “history sheeters” – that is, those charged (though not necessarily convicted) of a crime. These surveillance powers included secret picketing of the suspect’s house, domiciliary visits at night, enquiries into his habits and associations, and reporting and verifying his movements. These were challenged on Article 19(1)(d) (freedom of movement) and Article 21 (personal liberty) grounds. It is the second ground that particularly concerns us.

As a preliminary matter, we may observe that the Regulations in question were administrative – that is, they did not constitute a “law”, passed by the legislature. This automatically ruled out a 19(2) – 19(6) defence, and a 21 “procedure established by law” defence – which were only applicable when the State made a law. The reason for this is obvious: fundamental rights are extremely important. If one is to limit them, then that judgment must be made by a competent legislature, acting through the proper, deliberative channels of lawmaking – and not by mere administrative or executive action. Consequently – and this is quite apart from the question of administrative/executive competence - if the Police Regulations were found to violate Article 19 or Article 21, that made them ipso facto void, without the exceptions kicking in. (Paragraph 5)

It is also important to note one other thing: as a defence, it was expressly argued by the State that the police action was reasonable and in the interests of maintaining public order precisely because it was “directed only against those who were on proper grounds suspected to be of proved anti-social habits and tendencies and on whom it was necessary to impose some restraints for the protection of society.” The Court agreed, observing that this would have “an overwhelming and even decisive weight in establishing that the classification was rational and that the restrictions were reasonable and designed to preserve public order by suitable preventive action” if there had been a law in the first place, which there wasn’t. Thus, this issue itself was hypothetical, but what is crucial to note is that the State argued – and the Court endorsed – the basic idea that what makes surveillance reasonable under Article 19 is the very fact that it is targeted – targeted at individuals who are specifically suspected of being a threat to society because of a history of criminality.

Let us now move to the merits. The Court upheld secret picketing on the ground that it could not affect the petitioner’s freedom of movement since it was, well secret – and what you don’t know, apparently, cannot hurt you. What the Court found fault with was the intrusion into the petitioner’s dwelling, and knocking at his door late at night to wake him up. The finding required the Court to interpret the meaning of the term “personal liberty” in Article 21. By contrasting the very specific rights listed in Article 21, the Court held that:

Is then the word “personal liberty” to be construed as excluding from its purview an invasion on the part of the police of the sanctity of a man’s home and an intrusion into his personal security and his right to sleep which is the normal comfort and a dire necessity for human existence even as an animal? It might not be inappropriate to refer here to the words of the preamble to the Constitution that it is designed to “assure the dignity of the individual” and therefore of those cherished human value as the means of ensuring his full development and evolution. We are referring to these objectives of the framers merely to draw attention to the concepts underlying the constitution which would point to such vital words as “personal liberty” having to be construed in a reasonable manner and to be attributed that these which would promote and achieve those objectives and by no means to stretch the meaning of the phrase to square with any preconceived notions or doctrinaire constitutional theories.” (Paragraph 16)

A few important observations need to be made about this paragraph. The first is that it immediately follows the Court’s examination of the American Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, with their guarantees of “life, liberty and property…” and is, in turn, followed by the Court’s examination of the American Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the protection of a person’s houses, papers, effects etc from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court’s engagement with the Fourth Amendment is ambiguous. It admits that “our Constitution contains no like guarantee…”, but holds that nonetheless these extracts [from the 1949 case, Wolf v Colorado] would show that an unauthorised intrusion into a person’s home and the disturbance caused to him thereby, is as it were the violation of a common law right of a man – an ultimate essential of ordered liberty”, thus tying its own holding in some way to the American Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. But here’s the crucial thing: at this point, American Fourth Amendment jurisprudence was propertarian based – that is, the Fourth Amendment was understood to codify – with added protection – the common law of trespass, whereby a man’s property was held sacrosanct, and not open to be trespassed against. Four years later, in 1967, in Katz, the Supreme Court would shift its own jurisprudence, to holding that the Fourth Amendment protected zones where persons had a “reasonable expectation of privacy”, as opposed to simply protecting listed items of property (homes, papers, effects etc). Kharak Singh was handed down before Katz. Yet the quoted paragraph expressly shows that the Court anticipated Katz, and in expressly grounding the Article 21 personal liberty right within the meaning of dignity, utterly rejected the propertarian-tresspass foundations that it might have had. To use a phrase invoked by later Courts – in this proto-privacy case, the Court already set the tone by holding it to attach to persons, not places.

While effectively finding a right to privacy in the Constitution, the Court expressly declined to frame it that way. In examining police action which involved tracking a person’s location, association and movements, the Court upheld it, holding that “the right of privacy is not a guaranteed right under our Constitution and therefore the attempt to ascertain the movements of an individual which is merely a manner in which privacy is invaded is not an infringement of a fundamental right guaranteed by Part III.”

The “therefore” is crucial. Although not expressly, the Court virtually holds, in terms, that tracking location, association and movements does violate privacy, and only finds that constitutional because there is no guaranteed right to privacy within the Constitution. Yet.

In his partly concurring and partly dissenting opinion, Subba Rao J. went one further, by holding that the idea of privacy was, in fact, contained within the meaning of Article 21: “it is true our Constitution does not expressly declare a right to privacy as a fundamental right, but the said right is an essential ingredient of personal liberty.” Privacy he defined as the right to “be free from restrictions or encroachments on his person, whether those restrictions or encroachments are directly imposed or indirectly brought about by calculated measures.” On this ground, he held all the surveillance measures unconstitutional.

Justice Subba Rao’s opinion also explored a proto-version of the chilling effect. Placing specific attention upon the word “freely” contained within 19(1)(d)’s guarantee of free movment, Justice Subba Rao went specifically against the majority, and observed:

“The freedom of movement in clause (d) therefore must be a movement in a free country, i.e., in a country where he can do whatever he likes, speak to whomsoever he wants, meet people of his own choice without any apprehension, subject of course to the law of social control. The petitioner under the shadow of surveillance is certainly deprived of this freedom. He can move physically, but he cannot do so freely, for all his activities are watched and noted. The shroud of surveillance cast upon him perforce engender inhibitions in him and he cannot act freely as he would like to do. We would, therefore, hold that the entire Regulation 236 offends also Art. 19(1)(d) of the Constitution.”

This early case, therefore, has all the aspects that plague the CMS today. What to do with administrative action that does not have the sanction of law? What role does targeting play in reasonableness – assuming there is a law? What is the philosophical basis for the implicit right to privacy within the meaning of Article 21’s guarantee of personal liberty? And is the chilling effect a valid constitutional concern?

We shall continue with the development of the jurisprudence in the next post.

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