It is dangerous to speak straight since the times of Aristotle and even earlier. Conversely, availability of social, electronic, print and web media has made it easy to express their opinion by writers, at times with incomplete information and even at the cost of reputation of the others. It becomes even more convenient if it is committed under the license of the right of speech, protection of rights or accountability. This trend is bolstered by lack of any repercussions for any wrong, malafide and ill-informed opinion. Case in point is some views shared in the newspapers that public authorities are responsible for wrongdoings of few individuals in the Balochistan University and effectiveness of safe cities system for tracking the unlawful activities of protestors on Mall Road or Punjab Cardiology Institute through surveillance.

Surveillance in today’s world is too broad a term and needs specific references. Here we are talking about only surveillance through cameras by the law enforcement agencies. There is a broad-based consensus in democratic societies that surveillance through cameras has a trade-off between security and privacy. Most of the societies have made a preference for security at the cost of some privacy in public places. However, three major reasonable limits are imposed: First, hidden surveillance of the general public is not acceptable in democratic societies like the UK, USA and others. Second, it is also an accepted norm that data obtained through surveillance is neither public data nor will it be shared without a lawful process. Third, the protection of this data shall be ensured, and it cannot be kept for an unlimited time. Crossing these limits warrants for necessary and proportionate action by the administrators of the systems. And, of course, all this process is open to lawful scrutiny and accountability by the courts of law.

When PSCA started functioning in 2015, it started working on all three aspects and even more. The first step was to address the admissibility of evidence collected through the surveillance set up of PSCA. It was achieved in 2017 with the amendment of Section 164 in the Qanoon-e- Shahadat Act of 1984. This allowed the admissibility of evidence collected through modern devices as per the discretion of the court. Second, all locations of cameras installed by PSCA in Lahore are marked as Safe City Spots. Third, there is also a defined process to share data with lawful recipients like law enforcement agencies or by order of courts and tribunals. Lastly, the general limit of video data preservation is thirty days in case of videos, but photos are preserved for at least one year to maintain the record of traffic violations of the drivers to analyse their driving behaviour and for the forthcoming point system to suspend the driving licenses of the defaulting drivers. Data of court cases can be preserved for seven years or even more. These guidelines and procedures are live, and wherever there was a breach of the above guidelines, actions were taken as per the law.

Despite all these steps, the danger of individuals trespassing their limits and rogue behaviour cannot be underestimated. We have seen infamous leaks from organisations like CIA, offshore companies and other established agencies and organisations. However, individual acts of persons at the places of control must not be labelled as state policy to interfere in the lives of the others. The action of administrators of any organisation, who have installed cameras in private places in the campus or shops, must be scrutinised and victims must be provided lawful protection, and Justice should be done through due process of law.

We have seen, in some cases, that despite having public information supported by undisputed electronic evidence the culture of impunity prevails due to one reason or the other as respect for law and its unprejudiced application is an attitudinal issue which we have not imbibed so far, unfortunately. Digital systems can provide accurate and authentic evidence but making use of the digital output is still the job of the decision-makers at all levels starting from the investigators. Machines have provided information in cases we discussed, but humans are reluctant to part ways with cultural affinities and tribal approach to protecting their own tribesmen. Let’s not forget, selective application of law defeats the very purpose of the law.

Let me share a piece of positive news that first significant step taken by a public agency itself. Punjab Safe Cities Authority has already submitted a request to the Government of Pakistan, before any external reminder, for including the Privacy rights at public places in addition to homes expanding the scope of Article 14 (1). Its impact is already here that now there is a higher level of public awareness and there is a demand for protection of privacy rights, and it has become possible due to early steps taken on the subject. Although it is a constitutional and international obligation, now there is need for protection of privacy rights more than ever due to technological advancement in the areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain and Big Data.

There is no denying the fact that in Pakistan we need to legislate to protect the identity, information about locations of individuals tracked through cell phone companies and listening to the conversation of the people for human rights protection and for implementation of Privacy rights in Pakistan as enshrined in the Article 14 (1) of Constitution of Pakistan. Fortunately, the elected representatives are also alive to the situation, and reminders by the public and media are helpful to expedite the legislative process. How timely laws are made, depends upon the process already enshrined in the constitution. Till that time, we should keep playing our roles as constructively as possible to bring good name to Pakistan based upon our achievements rather hurling accusations against authorities based upon hearsay and incomplete information. For a functioning and progressive society, we all have to work towards one goal: the rule of law.

Akbar Nasir Khan

The writer is a Harvard graduate and is currently DIG.QPM and COO Punjab Safe Cities Authority.