Ours is an age of information. Information is knowledge. The old adage that “knowledge is power” has stark implications for the position of the individual where data is ubiquitous, an all-encompassing presence. Technology has made life fundamentally interconnected. The internet has become all pervasive as individuals spend more and more time online each day of their lives. Individuals connect with others and use the internet as a means of communication. The internet is used to carry on business and to buy goods and services.

Individuals browse the web in search of information, to send e-mails, use instant messaging services and to download movies. Online purchases have become an efficient substitute for the daily visit to the neighbouring store. Online banking has redefined relationships between bankers and customers. Online trading has created a new platform for the market in securities. Online music has refashioned the radio. Online books have opened up a new universe for the bibliophile.

The old-fashioned travel agent has been rendered redundant by web portals which provide everything from restaurants to rest houses, airline tickets to art galleries, museum tickets to music shows. These are but a few of the reasons people access the internet each day of their lives. Yet every transaction of an individual user and every site that she visits, leaves electronic tracks generally without her knowledge. These electronic tracks contain powerful means of information which provide knowledge of the sort of person that the user is and her interests.

Individually, these information silos may seem inconsequential. In aggregation, they disclose the nature of the personality: food habits, language, health, hobbies, sexual preferences, friendships, ways of dress and political affiliation. In aggregation, information provides a picture of the Popular websites install cookie files by the user’s browser. Cookies can tag browsers for unique identified numbers, which allow them to recognise rapid users and secure information about online behaviour. Information, especially the browsing history of a user is utilised to create user profiles.

The use of algorithms allows the creation of profiles about internet users. Automated content analysis of e-mails allows for reading of user e-mails. An e-mail can be analysed to deduce user interests and to target suitable advertisements to a user on the site of the window. The books which an individual purchases on-line provide footprints for targeted advertising of the same genre. Whether an airline ticket has been purchased on economy or business class, provides vital information about employment profile or spending capacity.

Taxi rides booked on-line to shopping malls provide a profile of customer preferences. A woman who purchases pregnancy related medicines on-line would be in line to receive advertisements for baby products. Lives are open to electronic scrutiny. To put it mildly, privacy concerns are seriously an issue in the age of information. Being of things which matter and those that don’t, of things to be disclosed and those best hidden.

Informational Privacy

The age of information has resulted in complex issues for informational privacy. These issues arise from the nature of information itself. Information has three facets: it is nonrivalrous, invisible and recombinant. Information is nonrivalrous in the sense that there can be simultaneous users of the good – use of a piece of information by one person does not make it less available to another.

Secondly, invasions of data privacy are difficult to detect because they can be invisible. Information can be accessed, stored and disseminated without notice. Its ability to travel at the speed of light enhances the invisibility of access to data, “information collection can be the swiftest theft of all”. Thirdly, information is recombinant in the sense that data output can be used as an input to generate more data output.

Data mining processes together with knowledge discovery can be combined to create facts about individuals. Metadata and the internet of things have the ability to redefine human existence in ways which are yet fully to be perceived. This, as Christina Moniodis states in her illuminating article results in the creation of new knowledge about individuals; something which even she or he did not possess.

This poses serious issues for the Court. In an age of rapidly evolving technology it is impossible for a judge to conceive of all the possible uses of information or its consequences:

“…The creation of new knowledge complicates data privacy law as it involves information the individual did not possess and could not disclose, knowingly or otherwise. In addition, as our state becomes an “information state” through increasing reliance on information – such that information is described as the “lifeblood that sustains political, social, and business decisions. It becomes impossible to conceptualize all of the possible uses of information and resulting harms. Such a situation poses a challenge for courts who are effectively asked to anticipate and remedy invisible, evolving harms.”

The contemporary age has been aptly regarded as “an era of ubiquitous dataveillance, or the systematic monitoring of citizen’s communications or actions through the use of information technology”.

It is also an age of “big data” or the collection of data sets. These data sets are capable of being searched; they have linkages with other data sets; and are marked by their exhaustive scope and the permanency of collection. The challenges which big data poses to privacy interests emanate from State and non-State entities.

Users of wearable devices and social media networks may not conceive of themselves as having volunteered data but their activities of use and engagement result in the generation of vast amounts of data about individual lifestyles, choices and preferences. Yvonne McDermott speaks about the quantified self in eloquent terms:

“…The rise in the so-called ‘quantified self’, or the self-tracking of biological, environmental, physical, or behavioural information through tracking devices, Internet-of-things devices, social network data and other means may result in information being gathered not just about the individual user, but about people around them as well. Thus, a solely consent-based model does not entirely ensure the protection of one’s data, especially when data collected for one purpose can be repurposed for another.”

Individuals are identified with reference to tax records, voting eligibility, and government-provided entitlements. There is what is now described as “‘veillant panoptic assemblage’, where data gathered through the ordinary citizen’s veillance practices finds its way to state surveillance mechanisms, through the corporations that hold that data”[1]

A regime for data protection

The balance between data regulation and individual privacy raises complex issues requiring delicate balances to be drawn between the legitimate concerns of the State on one hand and individual interest in the protection of privacy on the other.

The sphere of privacy stretches at one end to those intimate matters to which a reasonable expectation of privacy may attach. It expresses a right to be left alone. A broader connotation which has emerged in academic literature of a comparatively recent origin is related to the protection of one’s identity. Data protection relates closely with the latter sphere. Data such as medical information would be a category to which a reasonable expectation of privacy attaches.

There may be other data which falls outside the reasonable expectation paradigm. Apart from safeguarding privacy, data protection regimes seek to protect the autonomy of the individual. This is evident from the emphasis in the European data protection regime on the centrality of consent. Related to the issue of consent is the requirement of transparency which requires a disclosure by the data recipient of information pertaining to data transfer and use.

Another aspect which data protection regimes seek to safeguard is the principle of non-discrimination which ensures that the collection of data should be carried out in a manner which does not discriminate on the basis of racial or ethnic origin, political or religious beliefs, genetic or health status or sexual orientation.

Formulation of a regime for data protection is a complex exercise which needs to be undertaken by the State after a careful balancing of the requirements of privacy coupled with other values which the protection of data sub-serves together with the legitimate concerns of the State.

One of the chief concerns which the formulation of a data protection regime has to take into account is that while the web is a source of lawful activity-both personal and commercial, concerns of national security intervene since the seamless structure of the web can be exploited by terrorists to wreak havoc and destruction on civilised societies. Cyber-attacks can threaten financial systems.

Three-fold requirement

While it intervenes to protect legitimate state interests, the state must nevertheless put into place a robust regime that ensures the fulfilment of a three-fold requirement. These three requirements apply to all restraints on privacy (not just informational privacy). They emanate from the procedural and content-based mandate of Article 21.

The first requirement that there must be a law in existence to justify an encroachment on privacy is an express requirement of Article 21.

For, no person can be deprived of his life or personal liberty except in accordance with the procedure established by law. The existence of law is an essential requirement.

Second, the requirement of a need, in terms of a legitimate state aim, ensures that the nature and content of the law which imposes the restriction falls within the zone of reasonableness mandated by Article 14, which is a guarantee against arbitrary state action. The pursuit of a legitimate state aim ensures that the law does not suffer from manifest arbitrariness.

Legitimacy, as a postulate, involves a value judgment. Judicial review does not re-appreciate or second guess the value judgment of the legislature but is for deciding whether the aim which is sought to be pursued suffers from palpable or manifest arbitrariness.

The third requirement ensures that the means which are adopted by the legislature are proportional to the object and needs sought to be fulfilled by the law. Proportionality is an essential facet of the guarantee against arbitrary state action because it ensures that the nature and quality of the encroachment on the right is not disproportionate to the purpose of the law.

Hence, the three-fold requirement for a valid law arises out of the mutual inter-dependence between the fundamental guarantees against arbitrariness on the one hand and the protection of life and personal liberty, on the other.

The right to privacy, which is an intrinsic part of the right to life and liberty, and the freedoms embodied in Part III is subject to the same restraints which apply to those freedoms.

Apart from national security, the state may have justifiable reasons for the collection and storage of data. In a social welfare state, the government embarks upon programmes which provide benefits to impoverished and marginalised sections of society. There is a vital state interest in ensuring that scarce public resources are not dissipated by the diversion of resources to persons who do not qualify as recipients. Allocation of resources for human development is coupled with a legitimate concern that the utilisation of resources should not be siphoned away for extraneous purposes.

Data mining with the object of ensuring that resources are properly deployed to legitimate beneficiaries is a valid ground for the state to insist on the collection of authentic data. But, the data which the state has collected has to be utilised for legitimate purposes of the state and ought not to be utilised unauthorisedly for extraneous purposes. This will ensure that the legitimate concerns of the state are duly safeguarded while, at the same time, protecting privacy concerns. Prevention and investigation of crime and protection of the revenue are among the legitimate aims of the state. Digital platforms are a vital tool of ensuring good governance in a social welfare state. Information technology – legitimately deployed is a powerful enabler in the spread of innovation and knowledge.

A distinction has been made in contemporary literature between anonymity on one hand and privacy on the other. Both anonymity and privacy prevent others from gaining access to pieces of personal information yet they do so in opposite ways. Privacy involves hiding information whereas anonymity involves hiding what makes it personal. An unauthorised parting of the medical records of an individual which have been furnished to a hospital will amount to an invasion of privacy.

On the other hand, the state may assert a legitimate interest in analysing data borne from hospital records to understand and deal with a public health epidemic such as malaria or dengue to obviate a serious impact on the population. If the State preserves the anonymity of the individual it could legitimately assert a valid state interest in the preservation of public health to design appropriate policy interventions on the basis of the data available to it.

Privacy has been held to be an intrinsic element of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a constitutional value which is embodied in the fundamental freedoms embedded in Part III of the Constitution. Like the right to life and liberty, privacy is not absolute.

The limitations which operate on the right to life and personal liberty would operate on the right to privacy. Any curtailment or deprivation of that right would have to take place under a regime of law. The procedure established by law must be fair, just and reasonable. The law which provides for the curtailment of the right must also be subject to constitutional safeguards.


K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017)

[1] Yvonne McDermott, “Conceptualizing the right to data protection in an era of Big Data”, Big Data and Society

(2017), at page 4