Do We Have the Right to Privacy?
Do We Have the Right to Privacy

Do We Have the Right to Privacy?

Recorded phone conversations – Sri Lanka’s most-discussed topic in the past few weeks! Even though the authenticity and source of these recordings remain uncorroborated, a number of these recordings are being circulated through social media platforms like wildfire without being subjected to any form of control whatsoever, and everyone is waiting eagerly for the next recording to surface.

Do We Have the Right to Privacy in Sri Lanka

Although it is too early to discuss how MP Ranjan Ramanayake’s alleged conversations with his contacts can be of any benefit to Sri Lanka, this incident has triggered a discussion on people’s personal information and privacy, including digital privacy.

Unfortunately, people and the authorities seem to be too immersed in what secrets are likely to be revealed by MP Ramanayake’s recordings, while overlooking another big issue that is also of national interest – breach of privacy.

Leaked recordings

These ‘leaked recordings’ have raised several questions regarding many aspects of the country’s situation. One of most important questions among these is, “How easily can one’s personal information be recorded and used without their knowledge or consent?”

Speaking of people’s right to privacy, including digital privacy, Information Technology Society Sri Lanka (ITSSL) Chairman, Rajeev Yasiru Kuruwitage Mathew said that the lack of laws pertaining to people’s privacy, i.e. laws recognizing privacy as a fundamental right, is the main reason why Sri Lanka is in an unstable State when it comes to addressing privacy violations.

He added, “A number of proposals have been put forward urging the Government to introduce a Privacy Act, with a focus on the importance of privacy policies, to be able to deal with general privacy violations, as well as technology-based privacy violations, such as so-called video and audio leaks. 

The newly-appointed Government is planning to establish a centralised database, which, in a way, is a good development. But with a large amount of data being easily accessible from one place, there is a possibility it can lead to a misuse of data.”

Fundamental right

The ITSSL Chairman explained that even though the Sri Lankan Constitution does not recognize privacy as a fundamental right, this is not the case in many other countries.

He added, “When we inquired about it through a Right To Information (RTI) application, we were informed that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution only says that people’s personal information cannot be exposed, and that nowhere does it identify privacy as a fundamental right.

“If the Constitution accepts privacy as a fundamental right, people can seek the assistance of the Court in the event of a breach of their privacy. 

However, even though the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which has been adopted by Sri Lanka, requires that the Government accepts privacy as a right, it is not included in the Constitution.”

Expressing his views about the leaked recordings of phone conversations of MP Ramanayake, the ITSSL Chairman explained that there is a procedure to follow when law enforcement agencies take digital material into custody, and emphasised that the owner of the data is entitled to take certain precautionary measures to prevent the data from being edited or removed after being seized. 

He explained that the Computer Crime Act No. 24 of 2007 stipulates that a police officer inspecting a computer must have adequate knowledge to inspect a computer.

Required expertise

The Act, under Section 21, says, “No Police officer shall access any computer for the purpose of an investigation under this Act unless the IGP has certified in writing that such Police officer possesses adequate knowledge and skill in the field of Information Communication Technology and is thereby possessed of the required expertise to perform such a function.”

“To protect privacy and personal information, people being aware of their rights is supremely important,” he stressed, further explaining how to manage a situation where one’s personal digital devices, including data, are seized by Police. 

“If a Police officer seizes your computer, you can ask them to check and list down what’s on the computer, to prevent your data from being changed later. You can request an encrypted image file of what’s on the computer’s hard drive. The Act also says that during an investigation, data cannot be leaked, and that this is a punishable offence.”

Section 22 of the Act says, “Where any item or data has been seized or rendered inaccessible in the course of an investigation, the Police officer conducting the search shall issue a complete list of such items and data, including the date and time of such seizure, or of rendering it inaccessible to the owner or person in charge of the computer or computer system.”

Lack of awareness

A key factor that directly affects the lack of laws pertaining to privacy – as well as authorities’ lethargy in taking measures to introduce these laws – is the lack of awareness and concern among the general public about the importance of their privacy and personal information. When it comes to digital privacy, their perception of personal information is rather rudimentary.

The ITSSL Chairman opined that owing to low digital literacy, people neither know about, nor pay attention to, their user rights and privacy. He added that it is mostly middle and high-class citizens that are concerned about their privacy.

The ITSSL Chairman, speaking further about the nature of the approach Sri Lanka needs to adopt to deal with privacy violations, added, “Laws are not necessary regarding recording call recordings.

What we need to do is to educate people. If one has a recording of a phone conversation with someone else, they should protect it, and they should be responsible. 

Sri Lanka’s digital literacy is at a very low level. People widely use computers as well as social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter; nevertheless, their computer literacy is at a low point. In addition to introducing a Privacy Act, it is also necessary to introduce a Data Protection Act.”

Prevent

According to the ITSSL Chairman there is currently no technology to prevent a phone conversation from being recorded, although there are countless applications/software to record a phone conversation. Therefore, people have to use a rather non-technological approach – which is asking for consent.

The ITSSL Chairman emphasised, “If one is recording a phone conversation, informing the other person that the call is being recorded is an ethical deed. Doing so gives the other person an opportunity to give their consent and be aware of the fact that the conversation is being recorded.”

The recent incident about leaked phone conversations and the related events that followed highlights how easily people’s privacy can be breached without their knowledge. Following the release of the recorded phone conversations, experts in the field, at a discussion held recently, opined that due to the unavailability of a law pertaining to privacy, and due to the right to privacy not being recognised as a fundamental right in Sri Lanka, those who want to fight against breach of privacy have little chance to seek proper remedies in this regard.

Also, this incident raises many a concern, including but not limited to Media responsibility and Media ethics, lack of digital literacy among the public, and lack of awareness about the importance of privacy – these issues need to be addressed, too.

By Sumudu Chamara

Frequently Asked Questions

What can do when Police officer seizes your computer

If a Police officer seizes your computer, you can ask them to check and list down what’s on the computer, to prevent your data from being changed later. You can request an encrypted image file of what’s on the computer’s hard drive. The Computer Crime Act 2007 also says that during an investigation, data cannot be leaked, and that this is a punishable offence.”
Section 22 of the Computer Crime Act 2007 says, “Where any item or data has been seized or rendered inaccessible in the course of an investigation, the Police officer conducting the search shall issue a complete list of such items and data, including the date and time of such seizure, or of rendering it inaccessible to the owner or person in charge of the computer or computer system.”

What are the Technical Requirements to have Police officer to seizes a computer

Computer Crime Act 2007, under Section 21, says, “No Police officer shall access any computer for the purpose of an investigation under this Act unless the IGP has certified in writing that such Police officer possesses adequate knowledge and skill in the field of Information Communication Technology and is thereby possessed of the required expertise to perform such a function.”

Do We Have the Right to Privacy in Sri Lanka

Speaking of people’s right to privacy, including digital privacy, Information Technology Society Sri Lanka (ITSSL) Chairman, Rajeev Yasiru Mathew said that the lack of laws pertaining to people’s privacy, i.e. laws recognizing privacy as a fundamental right, is the main reason why Sri Lanka is in an unstable State when it comes to addressing privacy violations.

Does Privacy is Fundamental right in Sri Lanka

The ITSSL Chairman Rajeev Yasiru Mathew explained that even though the Sri Lankan Constitution does not recognize privacy as a fundamental right, this is not the case in many other countries.
Rajeev Yasiru Mathew added, “When we inquired about it through a Right To Information (RTI) application, we were informed that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution only says that people’s personal information cannot be exposed, and that nowhere does it identify privacy as a fundamental right.
“If the Constitution accepts privacy as a fundamental right, people can seek the assistance of the Court in the event of a breach of their privacy.
However, even though the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which has been adopted by Sri Lanka, requires that the Government accepts privacy as a right, it is not included in the Constitution.”

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