Big Brother watching

The apprehension of being watched puts one under tremendous pressure in which one cannot remain normal.

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the US intelligence agency, CIA, has jolted the world by his revelations about the US surveillance and data mining programme called Prism. It is a clandestine national security electronic surveillance operated by the National Security Agency (NSA) of the USA since 2007 which collects information about people the world over from the servers of the US internet companies, computer networks and other devices. However, in the case of Americans, it collects and stores only their phone records under which the conversation is not tapped but other details are recorded like who called whom from where and when, etc.

 This is a direct invasion into the right of privacy of the people of the whole world by the US government. Snowden is currently an employee of the defence contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton and has been working at the NSA for the past four years in the capacity of an employee of various other outside contractors. He is one of the biggest whistleblowers of America who decided to speak up for the common good. The Guardian interviewed him for several days and then revealed his identity at his request as he did not want to hide in the vortex of anonymity.

Prism is a government codename for a data collection effort known officially as US- 884XN. It is a grotesque irony that a country which prides in its track record of giving liberty to the people and claims that the idea of the right to privacy in the modern age has its genesis there has invaded unabashedly into the privacy of the nationals of other countries. President Barack Obama’s statement that Prism cannot be used to intentionally target any Americans or anyone in the USA betrays a racist mindset that Americans and non-Americans are non-equals, the ideal of equality being cherished by the country notwithstanding.

In the modern era, the right to privacy acquired a concrete shape when Charfles Warren and Louis Brandeis published their seminal article ‘The Right To Privacy’ in the Harvard Law Review in 1890. It may be mentioned that the right to privacy has existed in India since the ancient age but without going into any controversy, it can be safely surmised that it came as a new concept with that article. It was a matter of raging debate in the USA following the challenging thesis of Justice Douglas in the Grisworld case (1965) that though the right to privacy is not mentioned as a specific guarantee in the Bil of Rights, it is lodged in the “penumbras formed by emanations” from the specific guarantees. The revelations made by Snowden proves that the USA has no regard either for its tradition or the law laid down by its apex court and it is trampling upon vital rights of non-Americans with impunity.

Protection of the law

Three international covenants have accorded this right a place of pride. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the UN on December 10, 1948 reads: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” Similarly, Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights and Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and fundamental Freedoms, 1950, give similar guarantee. Thus, it is amply evident that the USA is not ready to honour the international documents. It views everyone as enemy, and so, is convinced about its righteousness.

The idea of privacy is an anathema to a totalitarian state which condemns it as ‘immoral,’ ‘anti-social’ and ‘part of the cult of individualism.’ In China or other communist countries citizens do not have any such privilege and they are arrested and tormented on the basis of any unreliable information as the right to privacy is not recognised. But even such totalitarian states have not remained unaffected by the awareness of the new but inalienable right. It is an irony that a country which claims to be liberal and is the oldest modern republic is trampling upon the privacy of others. In fact, it is moving in the direction of erstwhile communist states.

Privacy means keeping away from the world which means exclusion of others. According Prof Alan F Westin, privacy is needed for (a) personal autonomy, (b) emotional release, (c) self-evaluation, and (d) limited and protected communication. One is free to decide what information s/he has to share with others.

However, the mind-boggling growth of technology has made the intrusion into privacy so simple that all conversations can be tapped and all information can be gleaned without much effort. Technologically, the USA is much ahead of other countries in terms of technology and if it misuses this power it can wreak havoc which it is doing. Snowden has done a yeoman service by debunking an immoral practice. He has taken refuge in Hong Kong and says that he has not fled away from justice.

Rather he asserts, “My sole aim is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” The civil society of the entire world should raise their voices in his support and inveigh against the draconian practice of the USA. The apprehension of being watched puts one under tremendous pressure in which one cannot remain normal. The right to privacy must be upheld.

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