For illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Pixabay

In Pakistan, where the line between privacy and security is often blurred and frequently ignored, a new petition, initiated by reformist Salman Sufi, is being debated in court. The proposal calls on the court to declare unconstitutional and a breach of privacy any appropriation of personal information of individuals without consent.

The petition was filed by activist Asma Jahangir’s Legal Aid Cell on December 5, 2019. The court shall debate the next steps of the petition come February 4.

Sufi speaks of the breaches of trust that occur in the day-to-day transactions of the public. Three “horrific incidents” are standouts. First, there was the taping of young couples in cinema halls that were leaked to the public to name and shame them. “[Then there] was Faisalabad incident; women [were] being secretly filmed in clothing stores.” And finally, there was the Baluchistan university row – where school authorities were charged with taking inappropriate photographs and blackmailing young vulnerable girls. ”All of it was coming together, so that’s when I decided this thing’s never going to stop if we don’t put an end to it,” he says.

After all, why should the prerogative of defense fall onto the innocent hands of those whose dignity has been assaulted? When traditional systems fail and self-determined armor is not enough, who is accountable for the stain? Who should be held responsible?

Not against the law

This petition, says Sufi, is not a moral shroud meant to incriminate people who are on the side of the law. Using the cinema row as an example, Sufi explains: “Some people said that what they were doing was immoral or illegal, so it’s good that they got public shamed– anything that’s being done that’s illegal or immoral, it’s is covered under the statutes of the law. There are laws so the administration is responsible to hand those people over to the law enforcement; they are not allowed to take the footage and then leak the footage for their own ulterior motives and then blackmail the couple. They are also breaking the law [by doing this].”

Often, says Sufi, administrators of public spaces with CCTV cameras keep an eye on the footage. This, he explains, is just for the purpose of security. “Footage is allowed when it’s overriding public interest. For example, if the government needs to see what is happening in an airport, they have a legitimate reason to do that, so that’s fine,” he says.

“If you are working in a newsroom and are being harassed by someone with no way to prove that – if you record that harassment on your mobile camera, if someone is coming on to you, or trying to abuse you, that is overriding public interest, because you are recording an act of crime. So that is covered in the petition [too],” he adds. “That line is crossed when that footage is used for anything other than security purposes,” says Sufi.

Make the foundations strong

The change that needs to occur requires a grass-roots level understanding. “The major challenge to make the public and the government understand that you can have cameras for security but you have to have certain safeguards that ensure that that footage is used for security and then deleted and is not being used for other purposes,” he says.

In one instance that occurred shortly before Sufi’s conversation with Gulf News, a woman was filmed giving birth; she was then blackmailed by the very medical staff members who swore the Hippocratic Oath and who helped her during labour.

The incident is a dark patch not only on the healthcare industry of the country but also the stark reminder that new laws need to come into effect. For when in the name of security, a person’s dignity is assaulted – it’s time to call for a reckoning. It’s time for things to change.