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Phone tapping: What 1997 Supreme Court verdict says

Last updated on: April 26, 2010 14:45 IST

The Outlook magazine report on tapping of phones of prominent politicians by the National Technical Research Organisation has kicked up a huge storm. The government is under fire and legal experts are of the opinion that it is clearly violative of Article 21 of the Constitution, which very clearly mandates that protection ought to be given to life and liberty.

In this context, it would be interesting to note a very important judgment of the Supreme Court that had clearly stated that the right to hold a telephone conversation in private at home or at an office will come under the provisions of right to privacy and a telephone conversation is an important part of a person's private life.

The court also specified in this judgment delivered in the PUCL vs Union of India case in 1997 that a telephonic conversation in private without interference would come under the purview of right to privacy as mandated in the Constitution.

The court further observed that unlawful means of phone tapping are invasions in privacy and are uncivilized and undemocratic in nature.

The Supreme Court, in the same judgment, also went on to lay down various guidelines regarding phone tapping which are as follows:

  • If a telephone needs to be tapped, then the home secretary of the Union government or the respective state government can issue an order to this effect.
  • Strong reasons have to be specified in order to issue such a directive.
  • Such an order shall be in force only for two months unless there is another order, which will give the home secretary the right to extend it by another six months only.
  • The Supreme Court, however, does not give the home secretary the ultimate power and states clearly in the same judgment that such an order shall be subject to review by the Cabinet, law and telecommunication secretary who will need to review the same in 2 months time of the date the order has been passed.

    Further, the court held that records relating to phone tapping should be used and destroyed within two months.

    The order, which will be passed by the home secretary, shall be specific in nature. The invasion of privacy shall be minimum in nature and a strong justification to the act shall be mentioned. A justification to the effect that the phone is being tapped as they were unable to collect information through other means.

    Constitutional requirements have to be satisfied and unlawful means of telephone tapping shall be avoided at any cost.

    Famous incidents of phone tapping
    One of the most famous incidents of phone tapping in India was during the Ramakrishna Hegde regime in Karnataka in the year 1988.

    The opposition had alleged that Hegde had ordered the tapping of phones of opposition leaders and was invading their privacy. There was a huge uproar in the state and he was forced to step down as chief minister after which S R Bommai took over.

    Similarly, Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa was also under the storm when JD-S leader H D Kumaraswamy accused him of phone tapping.

    At the Centre, Zail Singh had accused the Rajiv Gandhi government of bugging Rashtrapathi Bhavan.
    Vicky Nanjappa