Can we have some privacy?

Is Edward Snowden a hero or a villain? Is he in the right in exposing the ‘evil’ programmes by the US who is tapping into every second American house and collecting gazillions of data?

This debate has crossed the shores along with Snowden and is now being asked everywhere. Expectedly, the human rights activists in India are crying foul, our Leftists are swaggering, saying ‘We told you so, US is evil!’ Activists such as Meena Kandasamy are urging our Indian government to offer asylum to Snowden.

This post is not about Snowden, but it is about the government’s ability or the right to tap into our lives and the citizens losing their privacy to the government. Let the US worry about Snowden. Let us talk about our privacy.

Are we justified in moaning about the loss of our privacy? Can my government listen to my phone conversations, read my emails, access my photos, or generally hack into my laptop to see what I’m doing?

There are two angles to it. First let us look into the Left parties crying hoarse. Historically, the Communist parties in India have been known to be serious hypocrites. They are so sincere in their hypocrisy that they are not even aware. The erstwhile Soviet and the East Germany are known to be one of the worst offenders when it comes to infringing the privacy of its citizens. They had literally made privacy irrelevant and had retained the right to bug anybody’s life, walk into anybody’s house at any time and apprehend and arrest anybody at any time. German films like The Lives of Others have documented this in their culture. In today’s China, the beacon of Communism, a citizen’s every move is monitored, controlled and managed by their authoritarian government. You can’t google anything there, because Google had quit China long back citing their draconian censorship. They only have Baidu, the Chinese search engine which complies with all the regulations by their authorities. In his book Tibet Tibet, author Patrick French demonstrates that if you search the term ‘Tianenmen’ or ‘Tibet’ or ‘Dalai Lama’ in your search engine, you’ll have authorities knocking at your door in less than two hours. Within Tibet, you can’t even hang the picture of Dalai Lama in your house and many ardent Tibetans have the picture of their Lama hidden inside their house and take it out only during worship times.

Second, about the issue of privacy, the very concept has different meaning in the West and the East. In the West, it is taken too seriously that a mother does not dare enter into her child’s room without knocking. She does not enter at all in its absence. The child would take offence if she did. In places like India, however, we do not have such serious boundaries on privacy. Here the mother would take offence even if her grown up son told her not to enter his room. For us, the word ‘privacy’ is a western concept which we haven’t quite understood and use it as meaninglessly as we use the word ‘taxpayer’, another word borrowed from the West.

In India, everything is public for us, because we do everything in public: Our weddings, deaths, bathing, worshipping our gods, fighting with our spouses, urinating, excreting. We do not even understand what privacy means. If your aunt comes home after a long time, she asks you ‘When are you getting married? I know a nice girl’ and ‘What is your salary?’

In the West, they don’t even ask for your date of birth in job interviews, lest it appears that they discriminate against age. In India, they even ask if you plan on having a second child this year.

Enough said. Therefore, the question begs, need we worry so much about privacy?

It is not that we don’t deserve privacy. It is just that we don’t get enraged so much about the loss of it. Imagine this: tomorrow if The Hindu were to publish a front page news: ‘Tamil Nadu police taps into the phone records of all the Chennai residents’, what reaction could you expect among the people? On the contrary, imagine this news: ‘Unknown persons damage the statue of Ambedkar in Chennai.’

Looking at it in other angle, terrorism is a real threat. It is a harsh reality that we must confront in our daily lives. One day a threat is received that there is a bomb at the Central Railway Station. On another day, Mahabodhi, one of the holiest Buddhist shrines faces a bomb-blast. Just imagine if some of those diffused bombs had gone off and the Bodhi tree had been blasted off. Or if a bomb were to go off at Dharamsala and something had happened to Dalai Lama. If you were to compromise a bit on your privacy to ensure Dalai Lama’s safety would you complain? If tapping the phone records of Chennai residents were to safeguard the Bodhi Tree, would you mind? What if it can save thousands of passengers in the Central Railway Station?

We live in harsher times than our parents did. We live in the age where we can’t carry water into the aircraft and have to reach the airport two hours before the departure for a one-hour flight. We can oppose phone tapping used for political purposes or  collected data being misused for personal blackmails, etc. But on the whole, barring these exceptions, I think we need to accept the loss of our ‘imaginary’ privacy as the small price to pay for our security. What do you lose anyway? Chances are, any given day, your aunt will know more about your personal life than the government and, among the two, you should be more worried about your aunt.