25 May 2010

Phone-tapping invasion to right of privacy? The law revisited

Respect for the privacy of individual is now of the essential traits of a democratic right-based society. In as much as society events, interaction with fellow-beings and the right to take decisions by itself and with fear of reward or favor from the government as essential traits or rather concomitant traits of the right to privacy, it is also required to be ensured that the citizen lives without having had to consider that his/her actions are being observed and recorded. Telephonic conversations, in as much as they flow along with the freedom of speech and expression and also as a part of the natural rights, are thus liable to receive the same protection against invasive sources. The same is now recognized the world-over and the Indian Supreme Court has also done its part in as much as protection of this invaluable right in concerned.

Dealing with a public interest litigation filed by an NGO, People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) drawing the attention of the Court to the rampant phone-tapping being undertaken by the Government, the Supreme Court not only declared right to privacy as an invaluable right of an individual and that phone-tapping was a violation of this right, the Court went on to lay down the guidelines required to be observed by the Government before going ahead with tapping any telephonic conversation. 

The Court made inter alia the following observations on the nature and extent of these rights;

Telephone - Tapping is a serious invasion of an individual’s privacy. With the growth of highly sophisticated communication technology, the right to sold telephone conversation, in the privacy of one’s home or office without interference, is increasingly susceptible to abuse. It is no doubt correct that every Government, howsoever democratic, exercises some degree of subrosa operation as a part of its intelligence outfit but at the same time citizen’s right to privacy has to be protected from being abused by she authorities of the day. xxx

We have, therefore, no hesitation in holding that right to privacy is a part of the right to "life" and "personal liberty" enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution. Once the facts in a given case constitute a right to privacy; Article 21 is attracted. The said right cannot be curtailed "except according to procedure established by law".
The right privacy - by itself - has not been identified under the Constitution. As a concept it may be too broad and moralistic to define it judicially. Whether right to privacy can be claimed or has been infringed in a given case would depend on the facts of the said case. But the right to hold a telephone conversation in the privacy of ones home or office without interference can certainly be claimed as "right to privacy". Conversations on the telephone are often of an intimate and confidential character. Telephone conversation is a part of modern man’s life. It is considered so important that more and more people are carrying mobile telephone instruments in their pockets. 
Telephone conversation is an important facet of a man’s private life. Right to privacy would certainly include telephone-conversation in the privacy of one’s home or office. Telephone-tapping would, thus, infract Article 21 of the Constitution of India unless it is permitted under the procedure established by law. 
Right to freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution. This freedom means the right to express ones convictions and opinions freely by word of mouth, writing, printing, picture, or in any other manner. When a person is talking on telephone, he is exercising his right to freedom of speech and expression.
Telephone-tapping unless it comes within the grounds of restrictions under Article 19(2) would infract Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. xxx

We agree with Mr. Sibal that in the absence of any provision in the statute, it is not possible to provide for prior judicial scrutiny as a procedural safeguard. It is for the Central Government to make rules under Section 7 of the Act. Rule 7(2)(b) specifically provides that the Central Government may make rules laying down the precautions to be taken for preventing the improper interception or disclosure of messages. The Act was enacted in the year 1885. The power to make rules under Section 7 of the Act has been there for over a century but the Central Government has not thought it proper to frame the necessary rules despite severe criticism of the manner in which the power under Section 5(2) has been exercised. It is entirely for the Central Government to make rules on the subject but till the time it is done the right to privacy of an individual has to be safeguarded. In order to rule-out arbitrariness in the exercise of power under Section 5(2) of the Act and till the time the Central Government lays down just, fair and reasonable procedure under Section 7(2)(b) of the Act, it is necessary to lay down procedural safeguards for the exercise of power under Section 5(9) of the Act so that the right to privacy of a person is protected.

The Bench, accordingly passed the following directions, seeking to ensure that privacy of citizens is not violated by uncontrolled tapping of their telephone conversations;

We, therefore, order and direct as under:
1. An order for telephone-tapping in terms of Section 5(2) of the Act shall not be issued except by the Home Secretary, Government of India (Central Government) and Home Secretaries of the State Governments. In an urgent case the power may be delegated to an officer of the Home Department the Government of India and the State Governments not below the rank of Joint Secretary. Copy of the order shall be sent to the Review Committee concerned with one week of the passing of the order-.
2. The order shall require the person to whom it is addressed to intercept in the course of their transmission by means a public telecommunication system, such communications as are described in the order. The order may also require the person to whom it is addressed to disclose the intercepted material to such persons and in such manner as are described in the order.
3. The matters to be taken into account in considering whether an order is necessary under Section list of the Act shall include whether the information which is considered necessary to acquire could reasonably be acquired by other means.
4. The interception required under Section 5(2) of the Act shall be the interception of such communications as are sent to or from one or more addresses specified in the order belong an address or addresses likely to be used for the transmission of communications to or from, from one particular person specified or described in the order or one particular set of premises described in the order.
5. The order under Section 5(9) of the Act shall, unless renewed, case to have effect at the end of the period of two month from the date of issue. The authority which issued the order may, at any time before the end of two month period renew the order if it by the State Government.
(a) The Committee shall on its own, within two months of the passing of the order by the authority concerned, investigate whether there is or has been a relevant order under Section 5(2) of the Act. Where there is or has been an order whether there has been any contravention of the provisions of Section 5(2) of the Act.
(b) If on an investigation the Committee concludes that there has been a contravention of the provisions of Section 5(2) of the Act, it shall set aside the order under scrutiny of the Committee. It shall further direct the destruction of the copies of the intercepted material.
(c) If on investigation, the Committee comes to the conclusion that there has been no contravention of the provisions of Section considers that it is necessary to continue the order in terms of Section 5(2) of the Act. The total period for the operation of the order shall not exceed six months.
6. The authority which issued the order shall maintain the following records:
(a) the intercepted communications, 
(b) the extent to which the material is disclosed,
(c) the number of persons and their identity to whom any of the material is disclosed. 
(d) the extent to which the material is copied and
(e) the number of copies made of any of the material.
7. The use of the intercepted material shall be limited to the minimum that is necessary in terms of Section 5(2) of the Act.
8. Each copy made of any of the intercepted material shall be destroyed as soon as its retention is no longer necessary in terms of Section 5(2) of the Act.
9. There shall be a Review Committee consisting of Cabinet Secretary, the Law Secretary and the Secretary, Telecommunication at the level of the Central Government. The Review Committee at the State level shall consist of Chief Secretary, Law Secretary and another member, other than the Home Secretary, appointed 5(2) of the Act, it shall record the finding to that effect.

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