A group of 562 authors came together on International Human Rights Day to sign a petition calling for a stop to digital surveillance as carried out by governments and private corporations to acquire personal information.
The list is illustrious. It includes the likes of celebrated Nobel laureates Orhan Pamuk from Turkey, Gunter Grass from Germany and J M Coetzee from Australia. A number of Indians too have signed, among them Arundhati Roy, Ramachandra Guha, Amitav Ghosh and Girish Karnad.
The petition A Stand for Democracy in the Digital Age by Writers Against Mass Surveillance calls on the 'states and corporations' to acknowledge and respect democratic rights, 'the citizens' to be the defenders of what is rightfully theirs and for the United Nations to take cognizance and derive an international convention, binding all member states through it, to uphold civil rights of peoples the world over.
Since the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former contractor at America's National Security Agency (NSA), which specialises in digital data gathering, there has been a wave of disclosures showing that such surveillance is more the rule and not the exception. This new age of snooping has led to collusion in the highest levels of governments to gain an advantage over allies and enemies alike.
The petition has raised concerns that the most vulnerable party in the whole episode are civilians who are kept in the dark about government policies on snooping. It notes the ease with which an agency can track a person – his mobile device, his internet activity, his social network – and come to know, illicitly, of his 'opinions, political leanings and activities, consumption and behaviour'.
It claims 'the basic pillar of democracy', which is 'the inviolable integrity of the individual' has been rendered 'null and void through abuse of technological developments' and that a person under surveillance is 'no longer free' and a society under surveillance is 'no longer a democracy'. In a democracy, people have the right 'to determine' to what extent data can be 'collected, stored and processed, and by whom'. It is also the democratic right of people to know, so reads the petition, what this information will be used for. Additionally, there must also be a provision for an individual to appeal for 'deletion if data has illegally collected and stored'.
Janne Teller, a Danish author based in the United States and an initiator of the petition, said the proliferation of these