Centre for Internet & Society

Explosive would be just the word to describe the revelations by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Pranesh Prakash's column was published in the Economic Times on June 13, 2013. This research was undertaken as part of the 'SAFEGUARDS' project that CIS is undertaking with Privacy International and IDRC.

Now, with the American Civil Liberties Union suing the Obama administration over the NSA surveillance programme, more fireworks could be in store. Snowden's expose provides proof of what many working in the field of privacy have long known. The leaks show the NSA (through the FBI) has got a secret court order requiring telecom provider Verizon to hand over "metadata", i.e., non-content data like phone numbers and call durations, relating to millions of US customers (known as dragnet or mass surveillance); that the NSA has a tool called Prism through which it queries at least nine American companies (including Google and Facebook); and that it also has a tool called Boundless Informant (a screenshot of which revealed that, in February 2013, the NSA collected 12.61 billion pieces of metadata from India).

Nothing Quite Private

The outrage in the US has to do with the fact that much of the data the NSA has been granted access to by the court relates to communications between US citizens, something the NSA is not authorised to gain access to. What should be of concern to Indians is that the US government refuses to acknowledge non-Americans as people who also have a fundamental right to privacy, if not under US law, then at least under international laws like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR.

US companies such as Facebook and Google have had a deleterious effect on privacy. In 2004, there was a public outcry when Gmail announced it was using an algorithm to read through your emails to serve you advertisements. Facebook and Google collect massive amounts of data about you and websites you visit, and by doing so, they make themselves targets for governments wishing to snoop on you, legally or not.

Worse, Indian-Style

That said, Google and Twitter have at least challenged a few of the secretive National Security Letters requiring them to hand over data to the FBI, and have won. Yahoo India has challenged the authority of the Controller of Certifying Authorities, a technical functionary under the IT Act, to ask for user data, and the case is still going on.

To the best of my knowledge, no Indian web company has ever challenged the government in court over a privacy-related matter. Actually, Indian law is far worse than American law on these matters. In the US, the NSA needed a court order to get the Verizon data. In India, the licences under which telecom companies operate require them to provide this. No need for messy court processes.

The law we currently have — sections 69 and 69B of the Information Technology Act — is far worse than the surveillance law the British imposed on us. Even that lax law has not been followed by our intelligence agencies.

Keeping it Safe

Recent reports reveal India's secretive National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) — created under an executive order and not accountable to Parliament — often goes beyond its mandate and, in 2006-07, tried to crack into Google and Skype servers, but failed. It succeeded in cracking Rediffmail and Sify servers, and more recently was accused by the Department of Electronics and IT in a report on unauthorised access to government officials' mails.

While the government argues systems like the Telephone Call Interception System (TCIS), the Central Monitoring System (CMS) and the National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid) will introduce restrictions on misuse of surveillance data, it is a flawed claim. Mass surveillance only increases the size of the haystack, which doesn't help in finding the needle. Targeted surveillance, when necessary and proportional, is required. And no such systems should be introduced without public debate and a legal regime in place for public and parliamentary accountability.

The government should also encourage the usage of end-to-end encryption, ensuring Indian citizens' data remains safe even if stored on foreign servers. Merely requiring those servers to be located in India will not help, since that information is still accessible to American agencies if it is not encrypted. Also, the currently lax Indian laws will also apply, degrading users' privacy even more.

Indians need to be aware they have virtually no privacy when communicating online unless they take proactive measures. Free or open-source software and technologies like Open-PGP can make emails secure, Off-The-Record can secure instant messages, TextSecure for SMSes, and Tor can anonymise internet traffic.

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