The expectation of privacy

Published June 15, 2022
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

WE live in a world in which we are watched nearly all the time. When we step outside our homes, surveillance cameras installed by our neighbours or inside shops that we visit are watching us. This constant surveillance in public or semi-public places is not a problem. By and large, when we leave the home, we do expect to be ‘seen’. The difference with near-constant public surveillance is that what humans did approximately, cameras do perfectly.

This has revolutionised security services; there is no doubt about which employee dipped into the cash register, who broke into the ice cream store or held up the bank. Somewhere, if not everywhere, there is a camera, and that camera has seen and recorded whatever has happened. Human eyewitnesses make mistakes all the time, are duped by their own eyesight, conditions, memory and even their own prejudice. On the contrary, cameras never lie.

But things get complicated when it comes to the private and semi-private sphere. Should it be permissible, for instance, for your boss to record you while you are at work? Cameras could make it unnecessary to actually be at the office. As long as your boss can see a streaming telecast of you at your computer, nothing else seems necessary. This idea is already problematic. While your employer has the right to make sure you are performing your tasks and duties, should they really be able to record you all day long, know what you eat at lunch, see which co-workers you speak to and how many times you do it?

Different people have different styles of working. Would the installation of cameras reduce acceptability of this kind of difference? Some work better by taking frequent breaks. Others get work done faster than others. One’s presence at the computer, after all, does not mean that actual work is being done. If the work product is the goal, then why bother with surveillance? Not to mention that male bosses or co-workers can also use such recordings to harass women in the workplace.

The proliferation of vloggers, Instagrammers and TikTokers means that people can remove the division between the public and the private.

Already we have entered the realm of the relatively intrusive. When a company hires a person, they have a contract for that person to do certain things. They do not buy an employee’s entire existence for a number of hours. Do the rights to these recordings belong to the employer or the employee? What happens if the employer provides the recordings to a third party? Should the employer be required to obtain permission from the employee or employees in question? Should an employer be able to share footage of employees on social media and earn royalties from it?

That is the working world. Our private lives, once protected, are also now commodifiable. The proliferation of vloggers, Instagrammers and TikTokers means that people can remove the division between the public and the private that has existed for centuries. Given that companies such as YouTube pay $0.18 per view means that people who are producing content (which appears to be a euphemism for making your private life available to all) are engaged in lucrative careers, if you choose to watch their channels. Most of the time, the more private the divulgence the more the views, and so on.

Here is where consent becomes an issue. Currently, Pakistan does not have robust legislation on privacy within these private realms. Like most other countries, the rules do not quite cater to a world in which each person has a camera and can compromise the privacy of another. For instance, if someone makes a video of you while you are in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, you may not want the entire world to know that you are seeking help for a personal medical problem.

Beyond this, we all know the problems that can be caused when videos of young people forced to take part in sexual acts are used as a means of blackmailing them. This trade is said to be flourishing in Pakistan, because when the outcry over one or two publicised cases dies down, the traffickers of child pornography simply go on doing what they do. Particularly notable here is the absence of the religious establishment, which is so vigilant about policing everything and everyone else in the country. It would be so refreshing to see protests by religiously inspired parties to surround the homes and habitations of those who make and proliferate child pornography.

There are also some cases in which the usual power dynamics of private interactions can be reversed. There are cases in which abused women have been able to tape repeated instances of abuse occurring within the private sphere. This has transformed cases that were dismissed, because it was the word of one party against another. Because cameras do not lie, abusers are exposed, and previously powerless women are able to get abusive men punished by the law.

More often than not, however, it is still abusers who are using cameras to victimise the powerless. Pakistan has numerous cases in which private videos have led to the murders of women. While the proliferation of cell-phone technology is a good thing, it is still men who by and large understand and control it. Pakistani society is patriarchal and is still used to blame women for everything that happens. The only thing more powerful than the truth the camera tells is the delusion of a country that always blames women even if the debauchery and cruelty is clearly visible to every other human being on earth. Perhaps one day, a long way into the future, Pakistanis will get around to considering how cameras everywhere and blackmail all the time is transforming the debate over privacy and surveillance.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2022

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