LET’S TAKE TWO events that happened over the last few days, spaced out over thousands of kilometres. The first is an order by a judge in Mumbai giving bail to one of those arrested along with Aryan Khan in what is now the infamous cruise raid case. The second is Facebook announcing that it would delete a billion faces that they had captured to use in algorithms and the end of automatic facial recognition altogether. Connecting the two is the idea of privacy that has had so little going for it ever since social media abruptly leapt out of the shadows and started feeding off human civilisation.
While giving bail to the 22-year-old, the judge said that the Narcotics Control Bureau’s allegation that he was a supplier didn’t hold merely from the only thing they had produced to back it up—WhatsApp chats. A bigger question comes begging here—by what right do personal messages so easily become the property of the state? To produce the contents of the mobile phone as the main, and often, the sole evidence is akin to the onus of proving a charge being on the person facing the charge. This is not just lazy investigation but a predictable invitation for extortion. Because every person’s mobile phone has tens of thousands of messages, some of which can be interpreted in any way the police chooses. If in a chat you talk about having a blast, it doesn’t mean you are a suicide bomber. What you do in the confines of your personal life is protected for a reason. Privacy is now even a fundamental right in India but has made little difference in how the state and its agencies think about their god-given right to the mobile phone of every citizen.
Few organisations have done more to whittle away privacy than Facebook, which pioneered the idea of your not owning yourself. Or, by owning your network, it decided that everything about you on that network belonged to it. As the network grew bigger, more of you became part of it and, like people ending up becoming the property of moneylenders in earlier eras, much of what made up your existence became part of Facebook. That it is now giving you back your face is a sign of the future. Of social media behemoths realising that the days of taking a signed blank cheque from users is getting over.
That WhatsApp, a product owned by Facebook, is now an investigation tool of the Indian state is also a sign that India has a marathon to go before developing a conscience about privacy. The fundamental basis of a true liberal society is that you are your own property, and not even the state can question that without
providing extraordinary reason and overwhelming evidence.
The Indian state pays lip service to this ideal; in practice, every institution behaves like a monarch who owns anyone unfortunate to come under his shadow.