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In India we have no concept of privacy

Bollywood actor Alia Bhatt recently posted on Instagram about an invasion of her privacy: “In what world is this okay and allowed?”

Bhatt was indignant because two photographers had gone up a building next door to where she lived, trained their cameras into her home and shot photographs. Shamefully, no editorial judgement was exercised and these photographs then published online only to be quietly taken down later without an explanation or apology.


Bhatt’s outrage is justified and understandable. By any standards, what happened to her was disgraceful and completely unacceptable. And yet, in the global context at least, it is not without precedent.


   In Europe it is normal for paparazzi to take pictures of celebrities in private spaces. The British royal family is among the worst affected. A few decades ago, a European photographer with a long lens shot pictures of the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson having her toes sucked by her ‘financial advisor’ John Bryan when the two thought they were alone and in a safe space.


   Catherine, the current Princess of Wales, has also suffered in the past: a French photographer shot topless pictures of her when she was on holiday. Both Prince Charles (now King Charles) and Princess Diana had tape-recordings of private phone conversations broadcast by British media outlets.


   In all of those cases, the victims of the media intrusions believed that they were in private spaces and did not expect there to be any photographers or phone-tappers. To photograph them or to tape their phone conversations was already an invasion of privacy. To then publish the pictures or the tape-recordings for profit constituted a massive violation of the concept of the privacy of the individual.


   The media usually offer two defences. The first is that when you become a celebrity, you lose the right to privacy and are fair game. This, surely, is nonsense. No celebrity says, when they star in a film, “okay, you can now take naked pictures of me whenever I believe I am alone.”


   A second defence is that these tape-recordings are “in the public interest”. This too is rubbish. The public interest is not defined as “anything that interests the public”. To argue that it is worth invading somebody’s privacy because what the media discovers that way is information that affects national security is a bogus defence that does not apply in 99 per cent of cases. No nation gains from a tawdry picture of some hapless victim's breasts or from a secretly recorded private phone call.


   In the West, there was a huge backlash against the paparazzi culture after the death of Princess Diana. Some limits were set. Diana’s son Prince William sued the French magazine that printed topless pictures of his wife Catherine. And any British photographer who invades a private space or any publication that carries tape recordings of private conversation could be in serious trouble. In Katherine’s case, the British tabloids had turned down the nude photographs later published by the French magazine.


   In India, alas, we have no concept of privacy. The issue is hardly ever discussed. At no media organisations — as far as I know — are journalists trained about what constitutes legitimate reporting and what becomes stalking or an invasion of privacy. Reporters, photographers and editors just make up their own rules as they go along.


"In theory, you shouldn’t get any of these calls if you sign the Do Not Disturb register. In fact, this register is a joke."

   When we do have debates about privacy, they relate only to data protection. In the digital age, this is an important area and a bill that is currently being discussed should help control the invasion of our digital privacy by Big Tech.


   But even as we discuss digital issues, we lose more and more of our privacy in other areas on a daily basis. Celebrities and the media are just one area. What about the way in which all of us have lost our right to control our phones?


   Over a decade ago, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) tried to introduce regulations governing spam messages. It was a well-intentioned effort but it soon ran out of steam. Now, most of us have abandoned the Messages facility on our phone, recognising that it has been colonised by unwanted commercial SMSs, which are now at an all-time high. If we want to communicate with our friends, we don’t SMS or iMessage. We use WhatsApp. TRAI is happy to let this happen, occasionally giving directions to telecom companies to crack down on spammers.  And the phone companies encourage it because that’s how they make money.


   What about robocalls? Surely that is a massive invasion of anyone’s privacy? And all those phone calls from call centres where people offer you loans, try and sell your property that you don’t want and flog third-rate products?


   In theory, you shouldn’t get any of these calls if you sign the Do Not Disturb register. In fact, this register is a joke. It stops nobody from calling you. When you tell the nuisance callers that they could be in trouble because they are phoning you even though you have signed the register, they either pretend not to understand or laugh in your face.


   This avatar of TRAI is either incompetent or ineffectual. So, we have learnt not to expect any protection of our privacy from the government. And in the absence of official protection, the spammers have become scammers.


   The trend increasingly is to move away from mere sales calls to fraud calls where people try to trick you into handing over personal information so they can raid your back accounts.


   The invasion of privacy is now so institutionalised that at many shops they will demand your phone number before letting you purchase anything. They don’t really need the number for the transaction. They file it away so that they can spam you. And many of them sell your number to anyone who is willing to pay, which is why so many scammers have access to your number.


   You could argue that training high-powered lenses into a film star’s home and selling your phone details to crooks are not quite the same thing. But, in a crucial sense they are exactly the same.


   They stem from a fundamental lack of respect for the privacy of the individual.


   In today’s India, we are all commodities. The people who invade our privacy nearly always do it for commercial reasons. The sleazy photographers get paid for their invasive pictures. The publications that pay the photographers hope to make even more money by publishing the pictures. The spammers who inundate us with texts or make nuisance calls do it for purely commercial reasons. And the scammers who use our number to fool us into giving them our personal details do it to steal our money.


   A decade ago, I ran a campaign against spam SMSs and that era’s avatar of TRAI finally took some action. But that urge to help and protect citizens has long since passed. Now, the government has no Interest in protecting us. We are on our own.


   So, kiss your privacy goodbye, it makes no difference whether you are Alia Bhatt or an unknown citizen of India. We have lost the battle to be treated as individuals with rights and dignity and not as commodities.


   And the scammers, spammers and sleazy paparazzi have won.



Posted On: 23 Feb 2023 11:00 AM
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