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Surveillance and Privacy in India – VI: The Third Party Doctrine and Untidy Endnotes

I must thank Amlan for bringing to my attention an important aspect of the Canara Bank case, that I overlooked in my discussion in the last post. I had pointed out how Canara Bank departed from the American Supreme Court case of Miller in basing privacy upon a personal, as opposed to propertarian, foundation (“privacy is of persons, not places”). Miller, however, also stood for an important proposition known as the “third party doctrine”, which has direct implications for the law of privacy in the context of the CMS. It is crucial to examine Miller in relation to Canara Bank with respect to that. Amlan rightly pointed out that if Canara Bank rejects the third-party doctrine, then this has profound implications for the constitutionality of CMS-surveillance; we must therefore pay close attention to the issue.

Before we commence, one distinction: there is a difference between telephone tapping (that Malkani held certainly violates a privacy interest), and telephone records that are held by telephone companies and are then turned over to the government (the NSA’s PRISM project, the GCHQ’s Tempora Project, and our very own CMS). The third-party doctrine isn’t applicable to the Malkani case of the government directly tapping your line, but becomes very important precisely when the information is routed to the government via a third party (in this case, the telecom companies). Since there is no settled case in India (to my knowledge) on CMS/PRISM style surveillance, we must examine the third-party doctrine as developed elsewhere.

Recall that in United States vs Miller,  the question was whether a person had a privacy interest in personal records held by a bank. The Court held he did not, since:

The depositor takes the risk, in revealing his affairs to another, that the information will be conveyed by that person to the Government. This Court has held repeatedly that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the obtaining of information revealed to a third party and conveyed by him to Government authorities, even if the information is revealed on the assumption that it will be used only for a limited purpose and the confidence placed in the third party will not be betrayed.”

This is known as the third-party doctrine. Speaking for four members of the Court in dissent, Justice Brennan rejected it, reasoning that:

[A] depositor reveals many aspects of his personal affairs, opinions, habits, associations. Indeed, the totality of bank records provides a virtual current biography. . . . Development of photocopying machines, electronic computers and other sophisticated instruments have accelerated the ability of government to intrude into areas which a person normally chooses to exclude from prying eyes and inquisitive minds.”

Three years later, in Smith vs Maryland, the question arose whether a pen register (that is, an electronic device that records all numbers called from a particular telephone line), installed on the telephone’s company’s property, infringed upon a legitimate expectation of privacy. The Court held that it did not, because:

Telephone users, in sum, typically know that they must convey numerical information to the phone company; that the phone company has facilities for recording this information; and that the phone company does in fact record this information for a variety of legitimate business purposes. Although subjective expectations cannot be scientifically gauged, it is too much to believe that telephone subscribers, under these circumstances, harbor any general expectation that the numbers they dial will remain secret.

Smith vs Maryland is essentially the third-party doctrine applied to telephone records. Records in question are knowingly and voluntarily passed on to a third party (the telephone company), the customers being aware that the third party is storing and recording them. Consequently, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Of course, there is a gap in the logic: the fact that we have no reasonable expectation of privacy against the telephone company storing and recording our data does not mean that we have no reasonable expectation of privacy that government will not do so. Nonetheless, Smith vs Maryland was what the government has relied upon in the recent NSA litigations across American District Courts. In the oral arguments in ACLU vs Clapper, for instance, which we have discussed previously on this blog, the government’s entire privacy argument was based upon the Smith vs Maryland holding, and ACLU’s counter-arguments turned upon how, in the last thirty years, the use of the telephone had increased so much, with so many personal details now part of phone records, that Smith no longer held the field.

This week, in Klayman vs Obama, Judge Leon at the Columbia District Court accepted in substance, the ACLU argument. He observed that “the relationship between the police and phone company in Smith is nothing compared to the relationship that has apparently evolved over the last seven years between the Government and telecom companies” – that is, a formalized policy as opposed to a one-time collection. Judge Leon then went on to hold that not only was the government’s surveillance technology vastly more all-encompassing than it had been in 1979, but also that “the nature and quantity of information contained in peoples’ telephony data is much greater as well.” The “ubiquity” of phones had altered both the amount of information available, and what that information could tell government about peoples’ lives (and indeed, previously on this blog we have discussed how bulk surveillance of telephone records can enable government to construct a complete record of a person’s social, sexual, religious and political mores). Consequently, Judge Leon held that there was likely to be a reasonable expectation of privacy in telephone records.

Does Canara Bankin rejecting Miller, reject the third-party doctrine as well? I think it does so, although not unambiguously. In the Court’s mind, the third party doctrine is a corollary of the propertarian theory of privacy. Thus, in paragraph 54, the Court observes:

Once we have accepted in Govind and in latter cases that the right to privacy deals with ‘persons and not places’, the documents or copies of documents of the customer which are in Bank, must continue to remain confidential vis-a’-vis the person, even if they are no longer at the customer’s house and have been voluntarily sent to a Bank.

The Court here conflates “no longer at the customer’s house” (persons v places) and “voluntarily sent to the Bank” (third party). Because even if one holds that the right to privacy belongs to persons and not places, it is logically possible to hold that once one voluntarily turns over one’s information to someone else, one no longer has a privacy interest in it. The Court, however, expressly forecloses that option by reading the two together – because the right of privacy belongs to persons and not to places, therefore we retain our privacy interests even in those documents that we have voluntarily turned over to a third party. In other words, the Court’s logic appears to be that the nature of the documents vis-a-vis us remains unchanged despite their location shifts from beyond our control, even if this shift is knowingly and voluntarily cause by us. Thus, it would appear that Canara Bank adopts a particular conception of privacy-interests-belong-to-peoples-and-not-places, one that rejects the third party doctrine. To repeat: this is not the only way in which we can understand the people/places distinction; conceptually, people/places and third-party come apart, as they have done so in American law. What we have tried to do here is to make sense of the Canara Bank holding, and I submit that the only way to do so is to understand Canara Bank as rejecting third party through one specific conception of people/places. Thus, the Smith v Maryland argument is not open to the government if it wishes to collect data from telecom companies or, in the case of the internet, ISPs. In light of Canara Bank, the privacy interest remains.

We may now end our substantive privacy law discussion by a brief examination of two cases whose locus lies in the domain of medical tests, although in differing areas. Selvi v State, decided in 2010, involved the constitutionality of narco-analysis and polygraph tests during police investigations, and the testimonial statements obtained therefrom. The Court had no trouble in finding that, insofar as these techniques interfered with a person’s mental processes in order to elicit information from him, they infringed his right to privacy. The Court then summarily rejected the State’s argument of a compelling interest in eliciting information that could lead to the prevention of crime, holding that: “There is absolutely no ambiguity on the status of principles such as the `right against self-incrimination’ and the various dimensions of `personal liberty’. We have already pointed out that the rights guaranteed in Articles 20 and 21 of the Constitution of India have been given a non-derogable status and they are available to citizens as well as foreigners. It is not within the competence of the judiciary to create exceptions and limitations on the availability of these rights.”

This passage is curious. While a non-derogable right need not be an absolute right, our privacy jurisprudence suggests that the right to privacy is indeed derogable – when there is a compelling State interest. Insofar as Selvi goes beyond the accepted doctrine, it is probably incorrectly decided; nonetheless, it affirms – once more – even if only through contentions made by the State, that the relevant standard for infringement is the compelling interest standard. Furthermore, in subsequently investigating whether compelled undertaking of narco-analysis or polygraph tests are actually likely to reveal the results that the investigating authorities need – and finding them unconstitutional because they don’t – the Court takes a path that resembles narrow tailoring.

Lastly – and most recently – Rohit Shekhar v Sri Narayan Dutt Tiwari dealt with a Court order requiring a compulsory DNA test in a paternity dispute. After lengthy citation of foreign precedent, the Court entered into a bewildering discussion of the relationship between DNA tests and the right to privacy. It held that depending upon the circumstances of a case, mandatory testing would be governed by a number of factors such as a compelling interest, a probable cause, decreased expectations of privacy, and so on. (Para 79) It then went on to hold: “forced interventions with an individuals privacy under human rights law in certain contingencies has been found justifiable when the same is founded on a legal provision ; serves a legitimate aim ; is proportional ; fulfils a pressing social need ; and, most importantly, on the basis that there is no alternative, less intrusive, means available to get a comparable result.” This is extremely strange, because the first three conditions form part of a classic proportionality test; and the last two are – as readers will recognize – the two parts of the compelling state interest – narrow tailoring test. Indeed, the Court contradicts itself – “legitimate aim” and “pressing social need” cannot both be part of the test, since the latter makes the former redundant – a pressing social need will necessarily be a legitimate aim. Consequently, it is submitted that no clear ratio emerges out of Rohit Shekhar. It leaves the previous line of cases – that we have discussed exhaustively – untouched.


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Surveillance and Privacy in India – IV: Analysing the Landmark PUCL Judgment

Let us return, now, to our paradigm cases of surveillance. In 1997, the Supreme Court decided PUCL v Union of India. This case is the most important privacy case after Gobind, and the most important case for our purposes, that of studying surveillance. It therefore deserves very close study.

At issue in PUCL was telephone tapping, which is – for obvious reasons – central to our enquiry. In PUCL, the constitutionality of S. 5(2) of the Telegraph Act was at issue. This Section reads:

On the occurrence of any public emergency, or in the interest of public safety, the Central Government or a State Government or any Officer specially authorised in this behalf by the Central Govt. or a State Government may, if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of and offence, for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct that any message clear of messages to or from any person or class of persons, relating to any particular subject, brought for transmission by or transmitted or received by any telegraph, shall not be transmitted, or shall be intercepted or detailed, or shall be disclosed to the Government making the order or an officer thereof mentioned in the order.” (Emphasis Supplied)

S. 5(2), therefore, necessitates a number of issues. The first is the meaning of the terms “public emergency” and “public safety”. The second is the meaning of the terms “persons or class of persons”. And the third – and this was the core of the arguments in the PUCL case – is the scope of the procedural safeguards required to make this Section constitutionally legitimate. A close reading of the case, I suggest, places PUCL firmly within the continuing tradition of Kharak Singh and Gobind, in setting stringent safeguards upon infringements of privacy.

The first thing to note is whether S. 5(2) is relevant at all to the question of bulk surveillance, a la CMS. There are at least three reasons to suggest that it is not. First, the Indian Telegraph Act is an 1885 legislation, drafted at a time when bulk surveillance was unimaginable, and aimed at addressing a very different problem – interception of individual telegraphic messages for specific, short-term purposes. Secondly, the term “persons or class of persons” in S. 5(2) is clearly indicative of identifiable individuals (or classes of individuals), and is not meant to include the citizenry as a whole. And thirdly, the Court’s own guidelines militate against reading a permission for bulk surveillance into the Act (I’ll come to this later). S. 5(2), therefore, does not authorize bulk surveillance, and does not authorize the CMS.

That said, let us now examine the development of privacy law in the case. The Court held unambiguously that individuals had a privacy interest in the content of their telephone communications. It cited Kharak Singh, Gobind and R. Rajagopal for the proposition that privacy was a protected right under Article 21. Coming, then, to the all-important interpretation of “public emergency” and “public safety”, the Court held – and it is submitted correctly – that the two phrases “take their colour off each other”. It defined public safety as the state of safety or freedom from danger for the public at large, and argued that neither a public emergency nor public safety could be “secretive”, but must be evident to the reasonable person.

There is an elementary reason why “public emergency” and “public safety” cannot be given widely divergent interpretations. This is because if the standard embodied by one was laxer than the standard embodied by the other, then the latter would become redundant: in other words, if “public safety” is interpreted more broadly than public emergency, then there would be no point to having the phrase “public emergency” at all, because any public emergency would necessarily be a matter of public safety. The two categories must therefore be non-overlapping, referring to different aspects, and requiring roughly the same standard to be attracted. This argument is buttressed by the fact that the Court required a proclamation of an Emergency via public notification: now if that procedural safeguard is required in one case (Emergency), but the government can simply get around it by doing the same thing (phone interception) under the guise of public safety then, once again, “public emergency” becomes an almost redundant category, something clearly beyond the expectation of the legislature. For “public safety” to have any teeth, therefore, it must refer to a specific situation of identifiable danger – and not a general, vague idea – perhaps – of containing potential terrorist threats.

This position is buttressed by the Court’s citation of the Press Commission Recommendations, used the phrases “national security”, “public order” and “investigation of crimes”; the Press Commission also urged regular review, and expiry within three months, once again suggesting that what was contemplated was a specific response to a specific situation, one that would expire once the situation itself expired (this is in keeping with the targeted-surveillance focus that we have seen in Kharak Singh, Malkani, Gobind and Pooran Mal). The Commission also categorically ran together “public emergency” and “public safety”, by holding that in the interests of public safety, the surveillance power should be exercised one month at a time, extendible if the emergency continued (as we have argued above, this makes sense).

After citing the Press Commission observations with approval, the Court then addressed the question of whether judicial review was necessary. Taking its cue from the English Interceptions Act of 1985, it held that it was not. The Central Government had the authority to make the rules governing the specific exercise of the interception power. Since it had not done so for all these years, however, the Court stepped in to fill the breach.

The Court’s rules are extremely instructive in order to understand how surveillance and privacy interact with each other. Under Rules 2 and 4, the Court required that the communications to be intercepted be specified (Rule 2), and the persons and the addresses specified as well (Rule 4); this is a very familiar proscription against general warrants – see, e.g., the American Fourth Amendment – “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized“. The whole purpose of this part of the Fourth Amendment was to mitigate the evil – prevalent under British colonial rule – of general warrants, giving a blank cheque to colonial officials to conduct widespread, dragnet invasions of privacy, as happened in the landmark case of Entick v Carrington. Indeed, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, one of the precursors of the Fourth Amendment, recognized even more explicitly the dangers to liberty that general warrants embodied, and clearly made this an issue about containing untrammeled executive power, and subjecting it to the rule of law:

That general warrants, whereby any officer or messenger may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of a fact committed, or to seize any person or persons not named, or whose offense is not particularly described and supported by evidence, are grievous and oppressive and ought not to be granted.”

Therefore, Rule 4, based as it is upon such lineage, clarifies beyond any doubt that S. 5(2) does not permit bulk, indiscriminate surveillance; because if it did, it would not make any sense to require specificity of disclosure for communication, persons and addresses. Once again, the idea is simple: the government must act on some reasonably strong suspicion before it begins to infringe citizens’ privacy – it cannot simply do so on a general belief that at some point in the future the information it gleans might come in use; and it cannot intercept the data – and intrude upon the privacy of – innocent citizens, suspected of no wrongdoing.

Rules 3 and 7, read together, codify the narrow tailoring rule: Rule 3 requires the government to take into account whether “the information which is considered necessary to acquire could reasonably be acquired by other means.” Rule 7 states: “the use of intercepted material shall be limited to the minimum that is necessary in terms of Section 5(2) of the Act.” The minimum necessary and reasonable acquisition by other means are a clear enunciation of the narrow tailoring rule, that requires the infringement of a right to be narrowly tailored to the legitimate State goal, and holds it invalid if that goal could be achieved in a manner that was less of an infringement upon the right in question.

What, then, are we to take away from PUCL? In my view, three things:

(a) Neither the Telegraph Act nor the Court contemplates bulk surveillance. Consequently, the Court’s specific view that targeted surveillance does not need judicial review is not necessarily true for bulk surveillance.

(b) Rigorous standards are needed to justify an infringement of privacy rights – in other words, a compelling State interest (although the Court does not use the specific term).

(c)  Privacy restrictions must be narrowly tailored, if they are to be constitutional. This means that they must be targeted, based on specific suspicion of identifiable individuals (as opposed to a general dragnet sweep), and the only means possible to fulfill the government’s goals of public safety and crime prevention. In both (b) and (c), therefore, the Court continues with the strong privacy-protection standards developed in Gobind, and afterwards.

And at the end of the day, it affirms one very basic thought: that for liberty to flourish, there is an aspect of all our lives that must remain private from government.

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BREAKING: US Federal Court holds NSA Surveillance “Likely” Unconstitutional under Fourth Amendment

Just now, the US Federal Court has held that the NSA’s bulk metadata telephony surveillance is “likely unconstitutional” under the Fourth Amendment. “Likely” because this was a motion for a preliminary injunction, and the grounds for an injunction are based upon the plaintiff’s likelihood of success.

I haven’t had time to read the judgment in detail, but a quick skim-through reveals that under the two-step Fourth Amendment test, the Court found, first, that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in  their telephone data, because of the sheer volume of personal information that is transacted via phone; and on an investigation of evidence, the Court found that the infringement was unreasonable, because there was no evidence to demonstrate that the compelling State interest – that of protecting national security – was actually being served effectively by said collection. On p. 64, the Court observes:

I cannot imagine a more indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion than this systematic and  high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for the purpose of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval. Surely such a program infringes on the degree of privacy that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.

Indian privacy lawyers would do well to study this judgment closely. As we have argued before in this blog, the two-step Fourth Amendment test is materially similar to Article 21’s right-to-privacy/compelling State interest test. Of particular interest is the Court’s conclusion that:

(a) We do have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our telephone records

(b) The government cannot simply assert national security; the burden lies upon it to actually show that bulk surveillance is effectively serving this purpose – and that is, show through demonstrable evidence of terrorist attacks foiled or prevented.

(c) The absence of judicial approval for mass surveillance is constitutionally fatal.

All of these positions are extremely relevant for the constitutionality of the CMS. We shall see how this judgment progresses through the Courts.

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Surveillance and Privacy in India – II: Gobind and the Compelling State Interest test

After its judgment in Kharak Singh, the Court was not concerned with the privacy question for a while. The next case that dealt – peripherally – with the issue came eleven years later. In R.M. Malkani v State of Maharashtra, the Court held that attaching a recording device to a person’s telephone did not violate S. 25 of the Telegraph Act, because “where a person talking on the telephone allows another person to record it or to hear it, it can-not be said that the other person who is allowed to do so is damaging, removing, tampering, touching machinery battery line or post for intercepting or acquainting himself with the contents of any message. There was no element of coercion or compulsion in attaching the tape recorder to the telephone.” Although this case was primarily about the admissibility of evidence, the Court also took time out to consider – and reject – a privacy-based Article 21 argument, holding that:

“Article 21 was invoked by submitting that the privacy of the appellant’s conversation was invaded. Article 21 contemplates procedure established by law with regard to deprivation of life or personal liberty. The telephonic conversation of an innocent citizen will be protected by Courts against wrongful or high handed interference by tapping the conversation. The protection is not for the guilty citizen against the efforts of the police to vindicate the law and prevent corruption of public servants. It must not be understood that the Courts will tolerate safeguards for the protection of the citizen to be imperiled by permitting the police to proceed by unlawful or irregular methods.

     Apart from the fact that it joined Kharak Singh in refusing to expressly find a privacy right within the contours of Article 21, there is something else that unites Kharak Singh and R.M. Malkani: they hypothetical in Kharak Singh became a reality in Malkani – what saved the telephone tapping precisely because it was directed at “… a guilty person”, with the Court specifically holding that the laws were not for targeting innocent people. Once again, then, the targeted  and specific nature of interception became a crucial – and in this case, a decisive – factor. One year later, in another search and seizure case, Pooran Mal v Inspector, the Court cited M.P. Sharma and stuck to its guns, refusing to incorporate the Fourth Amendment into Indian Constitutional law.

It is Gobind v State of MP, decided in 1975, that marks the watershed moment for Indian privacy law in the Constitution. Like Kharak Singh, Gobind also involved domiciliary visits to the house of a history-sheeter. Unlike Kharak Singh, however, in Gobind the Court found that the Regulations did have statutory backing – S. 46(2)(c) of the Police Act, which allowed State Government to make notifications giving effect to the provisions of the Act, one of which was the prevention of commission of offences. The surveillance provisions in the impugned regulations, according to the Court, were indeed for the purpose of preventing offences, since they were specifically aimed at repeat offenders. To that extent, then, the Court found that there existed a valid “law” for the purposes of Articles 19 and 21.

By this time, of course, American constitutional law had moved forward significantly from eleven years ago, when Kharak Singh had been decided. The Court was able to invoke Griswold v Connecticut and Roe v Wade, both of which had found a “privacy” as an “interstitial” or “penumbral” right in the American Constitution – that is, not reducible to any one provision, but implicit in a number of separate provisions taken together. The Court ran together a number of American authorities, referred to Locke and Kant, to dignity, to liberty and to autonomy, and ended by holding, somewhat confusingly:

the right to privacy must encompass and protect the personal intimacies of the home, the family marriage, motherhood, procreation and child rearing. This catalogue approach to the question is obviously not as instructive as it does not give analytical picture of that distinctive characteristics of the right of privacy. Perhaps, the only suggestion that can be offered as unifying principle underlying the concept has been the assertion that a claimed right must be a fundamental right implicit in the concept of ordered liberty… there are two possible theories for protecting privacy of home. The first is that activities in the home harm others only to the extent that they cause offence resulting from the mere thought that individuals might he engaging in such activities and that such ‘harm’ is not Constitutionally protective by the state. The second is that individuals need a place of sanctuary where they can be free from societal control. The importance of such a sanctuary is that individuals can drop the mask, desist for a while from projecting on the world the image they want to be accepted as themselves, an image that may reflect the values of their peers rather than the realities of their natures… the right to privacy in any event will necessarily have to go through a process of case-by-case development.

But if no clear principle emerges out of the Court’s elucidation of the right, it was fairly unambiguous in stressing the importance of the right itself. Interestingly, it grounded the right within the context of the freedom struggle. “Our founding fathers,” it observed, “were thoroughly opposed to a Police Raj even as our history of the struggle for freedom has borne eloquent testimony to it.” (Para 30) The parallels to the American Fourth Amendment are striking here: in his historical analysis Akhil Amar tells us that the Fourth Amendment was meant precisely to avoid the various abuses of unreasonable searches and seizures that were common in England at the time.

The parallels with the United States become even more pronounced, however, when the Court examined the grounds for limiting the right to privacy. “Assuming that the fundamental rights explicitly guaranteed to a citizen have penumbral zones and that the right to privacy is itself a fundamental right, that fundamental right must be subject to restriction on the basis of compelling public interest.” “Compelling public interest” is an interesting phrase, for two reasons. First, “public interest” is a ground for fundamental rights restrictions under Article 19 (see, e.g., Article 19(6)), but the text of the Article 19 restrictions do not use – and the Court, in interpreting them, has not held – that the public interest must be “compelling”. This suggests a stricter standard of review for an Article 21 privacy right violation than Article 19 violations. This is buttressed by the fact that in the same paragraph, the Court ended by observing: “even if it be assumed that Article 19(5) [restrictions upon the freedom of movement] does not apply in terms, as the right to privacy of movement cannot be absolute, a law imposing reasonable restriction upon it for compelling interest of State must be upheld as valid.” The Court echoes the language of 19(5), and adds the word “compelling”. This surely cannot be an oversight.

More importantly – the compelling State interest is an American test, used often in equal protection cases and cases of discrimination, where “suspect classes” (such as race) are at issue. Because of the importance of the right at issue, the compelling state interest test goes hand-in-hand with another test: narrow tailoring. Narrow tailoring places a burden upon the State to demonstrate that its restriction is tailored in a manner that infringes the right as narrowest manner that is possible to achieve its goals. The statement of the rule may be found in the American Supreme Court case of Grutter v Bollinger:

Even in the limited circumstance when drawing racial distinctions is permissible to further a compelling state interest, government is still constrained under equal protection clause in how it may pursue that end: the means chosen to accomplish the government’s asserted purpose must be specifically and narrowly framed to accomplish that purpose.”

 To take an extremely trivial example that will illustrate the point: the State wants to ban hate speech against Dalits. It passes legislation that bans “all speech that disrespects Dalits.” This is not narrowly tailored, because while all hate speech against Dalits necessarily disrespects them, all speech that disrespects Dalits is not necessarily hate speech. It was possible for the government to pass legislation banning only hate speech against Dalits, one that would have infringed upon free speech more narrowly than the “disrespect law”, and still achieved its goals. The law is not narrowly tailored.

Crucially, then, the Court in Gobind seemed to implicitly accept the narrow-tailoring flip side of the compelling state interest coin. On the constitutionality of the Police Regulations itself, it upheld their constitutionality by reading them narrowly. Here is what the Court said:

Regulation 855, in our view, empowers surveillance only of persons against whom reasonable materials exist to induce the opinion that they show a determination, to lead a life of crime – crime in this context being confined to such as involve public peace or security only and if they are dangerous security risks. Mere convictions in criminal cases where nothing gravely imperiling safety of society cannot be regarded as warranting surveillance under this Regulation. Similarly, domiciliary visits and picketing by the police should be reduced to the clearest cases of danger to community security and not routine follow-up at the end of a conviction or release from prison or at the whim of a police officer.”

    But Regulation 855 did not refer to the gravity of the crime at all. Thus, the Court was able to uphold its constitutionality only by narrowing its scope in a manner that the State’s objective of securing public safety was met in a way that minimally infringed the right to privacy.

Therefore, whether the Gobind bench was aware of it or not, its holding incorporates into Indian constitutional law and the right to privacy, not just the compelling State interest test, but narrow tailoring as well. The implications for the CMS are obvious. Because with narrow tailoring, the State must demonstrate that bulk surveillance of all individuals, whether guilty or innocent, suspected of crimes or not suspected of crimes (whether reasonably or otherwise), possessing a past criminal record or not, speaking to each other of breaking up the government or breaking up a relationship – every bit of data must be collected to achieve the goal of maintaining public security, and that nothing narrower will suffice. Can the State demonstrate this? I do not think it can, but at the very least, it should be made to do so in open Court.

In the next post, we shall continue with the development of privacy law post-Gobind.


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