Private and limited please

The leaked Ranjan Ramanayake tapes are leaving carnage in their wake, and there are thousands more which we the republic may or may not be privy to in the coming days. If indeed proven authentic (not that we’ve heard denials yet), the recordings are a treasure trove of evidence about the sad state of politics, law enforcement, the judiciary, and public service. Leaving the dreadful expositions aside, the shock, disgust, mirth, and hilarity of Ranjangate must serve as an awakening of our rights to privacy and how well those rights are enshrined in and protected by our laws.

The laws that apply to wiretapping and illegal monitoring of telephones don’t usually apply to recording one’s own telephone calls. In many countries that have robust laws that address telephone call recordings, the concepts of one-party consent or all-party consent apply. One-party consent refers to a recording being permissible if at least one party to such a telephone conversation is aware of it. For example, many organisations may record calls to their customer service hotlines with the intention of monitoring employee service levels, but depending on the jurisdiction, they don’t necessarily have to inform the customer as long as their own employee is aware the call is being recorded. They may choose to inform the customer as a matter of best practice, a commitment to ethics and common decency.

As a collective nation, we have little awareness of our rights to privacy. And in this age of digital transformation, that is dangerous and leaves us vulnerable in ways we aren’t even aware of. As it stands, no one’s likely to question surveillance in the interests of protecting national security and monitoring criminal activity, but as the Government moves towards digitalisation of its citizen services, it is of utmost importance that the public is protected through the enforcement of boundaries in the surveillance and sharing of public data.

This is an era where there is big money in data. Take for example marketers who always had to collect consumer data to make better decisions; digital literacy and the proliferation of mobile devices have made their job much easier today. But did you know the many text messages and emails from businesses that stuff your inboxes on a daily basis are a violation of privacy? That somewhere along the line, these companies have had access to your personal data and made you part of their targeted marketing? The ignorance of most users about their rights makes it so much easier to use their personal data to profile, track, and analyse behaviour in real time.

Strong privacy laws pertaining to telecommunications and data have never been more important for Sri Lanka; it is the only way to protect personal data and to create strong barriers around the unauthorised sharing of such data. This column has referred previously to the lack of digital risk management, even among the business community, leaving it exposed to privacy breaches and information leaks, and also noncompliance and violations of privacy due to sheer ignorance. Things are further exacerbated by the rampant use and lack of regulations surrounding the use of social media which, as seen in this case with the Ranjan tapes, serves as a punishing vehicle for leaking sensitive information – where the damage is instant.

While current legislation only addresses specific areas like electronic transaction and cybercrimes, in 2019, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology worked on draft personal data protection legislation which defines personal data held by data aggregating and that processing entities may be protected.

The conversation around privacy must of course include the people themselves; what must we know about giving and withdrawing consent; about freedom of expression; about our right to information and about our privacy and where it may be infringed? The enactment and implementation of the privacy laws is an entirely different matter, but legislators would do well to ensure there is a framework of laws that protect the vulnerability of their citizens and indeed, themselves in case they too become embroiled in a case such as their colleague Ranjan’s one.