Safeguarding digital identities: The battle for citizen privacy rages on

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PrivacyPhoto: Unsplash

    In an era where personal data has become the new oil, fueling both economic growth and nefarious activities, the sanctity of an individual’s digital identity hangs in a precarious balance. This reality came into sharp focus when Bivek Chaudhary, a law student at Nepal Law Campus, stumbled upon a concerning practice by the Department of Transport Management of Nepal – the public disclosure of citizens’ sensitive personal identification numbers, including their citizenship numbers.

    “Our personal data, especially state-issued identification numbers, are gateways to our entire digital footprint and lives,” Bivek Chaudhary stated, his voice laced with concern. “Indiscriminate disclosure of such information exposes citizens to potential harassment, fraud, and a host of other risks.”

    The Initial torrent: An attention notice ignored

    Recognising the gravity of the situation, Chaudhary, joined by his fellow student Bikash Yadav, fired the first shot across the bow – an attention notice issued to the department on April 30. This notice served as a clarion call, urging the authorities to reconsider their data handling practices and prioritize citizen privacy. 

    However, their pleas fell on deaf ears, with the department failing to acknowledge or act on the notice, let alone provide a substantive response. It was a disheartening development, but one that only steeled Bivek Chaudhary’s resolve to escalate the battle.

    The RTI Offensive: Invoking the law for transparency

    Undeterred by the initial setback, Bivek Chaudhary opted to escalate the matter by filing a Right to Information (RTI) application, a potent tool enshrined in law to demand accountability from government bodies.

    The RTI application, filed directly with the Department of Transport Management, seeks clarification on the specific legal grounds that empower the department to disclose citizens’ personal identification numbers publicly, without regard for privacy implications. 

    “Through the RTI application, we demand to know the specific grounds on which they find it appropriate to violate individuals’ privacy in this manner,” Chaudhary stated, his determination unwavering. The RTI application invokes the law that mandates government bodies to respond to such applications within 15 days. Should the Transport Department continue to remain unresponsive, Chaudhary has vowed to take the battle to the National Information Commission of Nepal, determined to hold them accountable for their actions.

    The privacy imperative: Safeguarding fundamental rights

    consumer rights conceptRepresentational graphic. Image: Freepik

    At the crux of Bivek Chaudhary’s crusade lies a fundamental tenet – the constitutionally enshrined right to privacy. Chaudhary and privacy advocates argue that the department’s actions potentially violate this sacrosanct right, enshrined in Nepal’s constitution to protect citizens from unwarranted intrusions into their personal lives. 

    “Our personal data is an extension of our digital selves,” explained Advocate Sujit Kumar Bhujel, a privacy rights activist and Cyber Lawyer of Nepal. “Exposing such sensitive information, the department is not only compromising our privacy but also opening doors for potential misuse and exploitation for the hacker, for committing the fraud and much more which cannot be imagined”, and much over in this law-based nation public bodies cannot do which are not enlisted in law, they are governed through laws and cannot go against the law.

    Bivek Chaudhary’s has reignited the broader debate on the need for comprehensive data protection laws in Nepal. “Data protection cannot be an afterthought in today’s digital age,” asserted Thir Bahadur Karki, a legal expert specializing in the constitution. “Robust laws, coupled with strict adherence by both public and private entities, are essential to safeguard the fundamental rights of citizens.”

    The government’s response: A litmus test for privacy rights

    As Bivek Chaudhary’s RTI application puts the spotlight on the Transport Department’s practices, all eyes are on the government’s response. Will it uphold citizen privacy or prioritize unfettered data sharing under the guise of transparency?

    The outcome could set a significant precedent for personal data handling norms across the nation’s public institutions. “The government’s response will be a litmus test for their commitment to protecting the privacy rights of Nepali citizens,” Chaudhary stated resolutely. “If they fail to provide a satisfactory justification or continue to disregard privacy concerns, it will only embolden us to escalate our efforts.”

    The global context: A universal battle for digital rights

    Beyond Nepal’s borders, Chaudhary’s crusade resonates with a global movement championing digital privacy and data protection. From the European Union’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to the ongoing debates surrounding data sovereignty and cross-border data flows, the tug-of-war between individual privacy and institutional interests rages on. 

    “Privacy is not a luxury in the digital age; it’s a fundamental human right,” asserted Elizabeth Denham, former UK Information Commissioner. “Governments and organizations worldwide must recognise that personal data is not a commodity to be traded or exploited at will.”

    As the battle lines are drawn, Bivek Chaudhary and his allies in the privacy rights movement recognize that their work has just begun. Vigilance, education, and relentless advocacy will be the cornerstones of their efforts to ensure that citizen privacy remains a priority in Nepal’s digital transformation journey. 

    “We must remain steadfast in our pursuit of privacy rights,” Chaudhary affirmed. “Through RTIs (Right to information), legal challenges, and public awareness campaigns, we will continue to hold institutions accountable and empower citizens to take control of their digital identities.”

    In the digital age, where data is both a potent resource and a potential threat, Chaudhary’s endeavour serves as a reminder that eternal vigilance is the price of preserving our privacy – a fundamental human right that must be fiercely guarded against erosion, one RTI ( Right to Information) at a time.

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