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Are we citizens or subjects? Experts gather in Delhi for Public Symposium on Privacy, Transparency, E-governance and National Security in India

Following 18 months of research by Privacy India, The Centre for Internet and Society and the Society in Action Group, with support from London-based Privacy International, the groups held an All India Privacy Symposium at the India International Centre in New Delhi on Saturday 4th February 2012. Speakers included Supreme Court Advocate Menaka Guruswamy, Microsoft Director of Corporate Affairs Deepak Maheshwari, social researcher and activist Usha Ramanathan, journalist Saikat Datta and former Chief of RAW Hormis Thorakan.

A few themes recurred across all five panels (Privacy and Transparency, Privacy and E-Governance Initiatives, Privacy and National Security, Privacy and Banking, and Privacy and Health). Perhaps the most prominent was the repeated allegation that the Indian government's technological illiteracy is putting its citizens at risk. One panelist described how an RTI request had recently revealed that the government had no idea how many of its own computers had been hacked or how much data had been stolen – even though this information has been in the public domain since the Wikileaks diplomatic cable releases.

The increased use of public-private partnerships and outsourcing was also a major cause for concern. Public money is being funneled into privately-held commercial enterprises – which, unlike public bodies, are not subject to RTI requests – and spent on e-governance initiatives like UID. Social researcher Anant Maringati spoke of a "hybrid world" in which government projects were fulfilled by completely unaccountable private actors. Advocate Malavika Jayaram remarked that, while private companies tend to have far greater technological expertise than government officials, they are ultimately motivated by profit rather than public benefit; we should therefore ask ourselves whether they can really be trusted with our information.

Government surveillance for the purposes of crime prevention also came under scrutiny, when Saikat Datta described how he himself had been put under illegal surveillance by an unauthorized intelligence agency. He warned of the dangers of excessive wiretapping, a practice that currently generates such a “mountain” of information that anything with real intelligence value tends to be ignored until it is too late, as happened with the Mumbai bombings in 2008. It is clear that the Indian government’s surveillance and interception programmes far exceed what is necessary for legitimate law enforcement.

Overall, panelists at the conference painted a vivid picture of India as a state that has made a habit of invading the privacy of individuals on a massive scale in the name of public benefit and law enforcement. Yet there is a clear sense that the benefits to society are not outweighing the costs to the individual. As Usha Ramanathan commented: “The question is, do we think of ourselves as citizens – or as subjects?”