Is Sting Operation an Invasion of Privacy?

Moral questions , opinions and legal dilemma becomes complex as technology evolves over the years. The issue of privacy and sting operations are now a matter of great concern with the advent of tiny cameras, computers and internet . The methods of criminals and investigators have improved with the availability of technology. So have the complexities of moral dilemmas before society and judiciary. These moral dilemmas are the key reasons which make it difficult for us to decide whether sting operation is an invasion of privacy or not.

Privacy was not considered to be an issue when the constitution of India was written. Even after it was recognized as a right, the interpretation of privacy itself has taken different forms. Some term it as the right to be left alone. Another interpretation of privacy suggests that it the right of a person to participate in social activities without organisations collecting their personal information. Richard Posner calls it the right to conceal information about themselves that others may use it to their disadvantage. Alan Westin defined four states of privacy , i.e. solitude, intimacy, anonymity and reserve. Solitude is physical separation of self from others . Intimacy is close relationship and interaction between individuals. Anonymity is desire of individuals for public privacy. Generally speaking, sexual relations, family and marital issues fall under the heading of privacy.

As long as privacy is not used to shield individuals from crime and obstruct smooth functioning of the state , one must concede that privacy is necessary for civilized society. Violation of privacy could sometimes defame individuals and also cause mental trauma. Hence, there should be well defined restrictions on the violation of privacy as far media and the government is concerned.

Sting operations are a  deceptive setup or opportunity provided to individuals to commit a crime or a morally unsound act. If the individual or an group of individuals use the opportunity to do a criminal act or a morally unsound act, they can sometimes be shamed in public eye or punished by the state.  Sting operations are tools used by media persons to expose wrongdoings or dirty secrets or individuals or organisations. It is also used by law enforcement agencies to gather conclusive and damning evidence about criminals.

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Image source : Newslaundry website

However there is a moral dilemma in this domain as well. The line separating entrapment and sting operation is usually blurred. Entrapment in legal terms is a setup where a person is egged to commit a crime. In absence of the setup, he/ she would have not done the act of crime for which they can be punished. However, if there is lack of evidence against a suspect, evidence collected through sting operations can be used to implicate him or her. A person who could potentially harm society can be put behind bars through sting operations. Media can use them to expose corrupt officials and politicians. Sometimes habitual offenders caught doing unsavory things on camera can also claim that they were lured/ trapped into crime by vested interests.

In order to resolve these dilemmas and address the legality of sting operations from privacy perspective, the lawmakers of a country must define privacy and set up a the boundaries for sting operations based on their social and national priorities. Sweden and Netherlands have made sting operations illegal as they attach high value to individual’s freedom. In USA, sting operations are common and legal.

The practice arrived to India in 2001 when Tehelka stinged BJP president Bangaru Laxman to expose murky defense deals. This was a case which exposed the pathetic state of affairs in India’s political system when journalists used the name of a fictitious defence manufacturing company called West End International could manoeuvre through the top echelons of bureaucracy and political establishment for seven months to sell their products to defence forces. They paid a bribe of one lakh rupees to the president of the ruling party . When the CDs of the sting were released the defence minister was forced to resign and the BJP president put in his papers  In 2005, 11 MPs were caught in the cash for question scam. In both cases, the well known stories of corruption among politicians were exposed and the guilty were put to shame in public with proof. A person from Kashmir was recently caught on tape accepting the fact that the unrest was manufactured through use of funds from Pakistan.

In all these cases, the persons in question were involved in dubious activities. One might argue that they did have the right to conceal their activities as per one of the definitions of privacy. However, they were not forced to commit the act by anybody. They did it as per their own choice. The only difference was that people conducting the sting recorded their practices that was damaging the country since many years. In this case, one must admit that the interests of the nation are above that of the privacy of individuals.

However, in some cases, private life of individuals can be caught on camera discreetly for the sake of sensationalism. One such case was that of Swami Nityananda who was caught having an intimate relationship with an actress who was his devotee. One might debate the morality of a religious guru having intimate relationship with a disciple. However, he was not violating any law of the land. He had not made any promises to his devotees about regarding his private life. However these tapes were played for hours on TV for the sake of public consumption. It also led to violence and hooliganism in the premises of the guru’s ashram. A sane assessment of the situation would suggest that devotees who had objection to his relationship should withdraw their allegiance to the ashram and the swamiji. However they chose to ransack his ashram. In this case, one must admit that sting operation had violated the privacy of the swami and the actress.

Currently, there is no legal framework to regulate sting operations or the privacy of individuals. It would be wise to define broad norms regarding privacy and the extent to which it can be evaded. It would also be wise to define unacceptable sting operations and make them a punishable crime in case they are violated by media and investigative agencies. A healthy balance between privacy of individuals and public interest must be taken into account when addressing privacy concerns with regard to sting operations.

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