The passage of a privacy law will ensure internationally accepted privacy principles are implemented in the letter of the Pakistani law.
Early last year, police in Pakistan registered a case against a clothing brand's outlet for installing recording devices inside women's changing rooms. Recordings in retail shops, public and private bathrooms, public places and hotel rooms often make it to wrong footage on the internet. Now videos of a couple engaged in intimate acts inside a cinema have been leaked on social media triggering a call from the civil society for a law to protect citizens' privacy from ungoverned expanding networks of private security cameras.
Pakistan's constitution enshrines the right to privacy as a fundamental right, meant to take precedence over any other inconsistent provisions of domestic law. The South Asian country is a signatory to several international and regional instruments with privacy implications. At the same time, it is necessary for a country hit by terrorism to have a surveillance system, but one, which balances privacy and security, detailing dos and don'ts for CCTV camera owners.
Pakistani law does prescribe up to three years in jail or up to Rs1m in fine or both for making videos or pictures and distributing without consent; up to five years in prison or up to Rs5m in fine or both for making or spreading explicit images or videos of an individual; and up to three years in jail or up to Rs1m in fine or both for cyber stalking.
Yet, digital voyeurism is increasing in the absence of a detailed legislation on privacy protection, proliferation of mobile phones with cameras, the easy availability of spy cameras, and low awareness among the general public about the pitfalls of being under surveillance. Vast consumption and circulation of such clips result in the rights of women, and sometimes of men and children, being infringed again and again.
Public policy expert Salman Sufi raised the first tweet-cry after the cinema video was put on social media to be shouted back by some twitterati who called the intimate act one of public indecency. According to Sufi, the nature of privacy does not change with the venue you are at. "Every citizen has a right to be protected from undue vigilance and prying especially when they are not committing a crime." Sufi, a Mother Teresa award recipient for campaigning for women's rights, said it is time we clarified that people breaking law whose recordings must be used for criminal proceedings can't be compared with innocent civilians who must not be recorded without their consent. "Every entity has a right to prosecute those breaking the law on their premises but they do not have the authorisation to release the footage without court's orders."
Sufi, AGHS (a leading law firm in Pakistan providing free legal representation to the vulnerable) and Digital Rights Foundation, a digital rights campaigner, are set to move a resolution in the National Assembly followed by a demand to the parliamentary parties to introduce the draft of a law they are working on. The draft on the anvil says that a facility having a recording device should install clear signage advising citizens of that so they can opt out of staying there. The facility recording should delete all footage at the end of a day if there has been no security-related incident. Staff in charge of video footage must be vetted and trained not to allow unauthorised access to recording. There must be no video recording in changing rooms or washrooms. Any leakage of video shall be responsibility of the management of the facility. Cameras deployed at homes must only be only angled at the premises and not on the road which has pedestrians and cars that do not consent to be recorded. At public places, offices and near changing rooms or malls, cameras should not be placed at angles which can be sensitive to an individual's body exposure. Vendors selling and applying surveillance devices should be regulated. The draft envisages the Federal Investigation Agency as the authority to act against any violation.
The passage of a privacy law will ensure internationally accepted privacy principles are implemented in the letter of the Pakistani law and citizens have rights they can invoke.
Waqar Mustafa is a multimedia journalist and commentator based in Lahore, Pakistan