Centre for Internet & Society

The domestic surveillance regime in India lacks adequate safeguards.

Chinmayi Arun's column was published in the Indian Express on June 26, 2013.

A petition has just been filed in the Indian Supreme Court, seeking safeguards for our right to privacy against US surveillance, in view of the PRISM controversy. However, we should also look closer home, at the Indian government's Central Monitoring System (CMS) and other related programmes. The CMS facilitates direct government interception of phone calls and data, doing away with the need to justify interception requests to a third party private operator. The Indian government, like the US government, has offered the national security argument to defend its increasing intrusion into citizens' privacy. While this argument serves the limited purpose of explaining why surveillance cannot be eliminated altogether, it does not explain the absence of any reasonably effective safeguards.

Instead of protecting our privacy rights from the domestic and international intrusions made possible by technological development, our government is working on leveraging technology to violate privacy with greater efficiency. The CMS infrastructure facilitates large-scale state surveillance of private communication, with very little accountability. The dangers of this have been illustrated throughout history. Although we do have a constitutional right to privacy in India, the procedural safeguards created by our lawmakers thus far offer us very little effective protection of this right.

We owe the few safeguards that we have to the intervention of the Supreme Court of India, in PUCL vs Union of India and Another. In the context of phone tapping under the Telegraph Act, the court made it clear that the right to privacy is protected under the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, and that telephone tapping would also intrude on the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19. The court therefore ruled that there must be appropriate procedural safeguards to ensure that the interception of messages and conversation is fair, just and reasonable. Since lawmakers had failed to create appropriate safeguards, the Supreme Court suggested detailed safeguards in the interim. We must bear in mind that these were suggested in the absence of any existing safeguards, and that they were framed in 1996, after which both communication technology and good governance principles have evolved considerably.

The safeguards suggested by the Supreme Court focus on internal executive oversight and proper record-keeping as the means to achieving some accountability. For example, interception orders are to be issued by the home secretary, and to later be reviewed by a committee consisting of the cabinet secretary, the law secretary and the secretary of telecommunications (at the Central or state level, as the case may be). Records are to be kept of details such as the communications intercepted and all the persons to whom the material has been disclosed. Both the Telegraph Act and the more recent Information Technology Act have largely adopted this framework to safeguard privacy. It is, however, far from adequate in contemporary times. It disempowers citizens by relying heavily on the executive to safeguard individuals' constitutional rights. Additionally, it burdens senior civil servants with the responsibility of evaluating thousands of interception requests without considering whether they will be left with sufficient time to properly consider each interception order.

The extreme inadequacy of this framework becomes apparent when it is measured against the safeguards recommended in the recent report on the surveillance of communication by Frank La Rue, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of speech and expression. These safeguards include the following: individuals should have the legal right to be notified that they have been subjected to surveillance or that their data has been accessed by the state; states should be transparent about the use and scope of communication surveillance powers, and should release figures about the aggregate surveillance requests, including a break-up by service provider, investigation and purpose; the collection of communications data by the state, must be monitored by an independent authority.

The safeguards recommended by the special rapporteur would not undermine any legitimate surveillance by the state in the interests of national security. They would, however, offer far better means to ensure that the right to privacy is not unreasonably violated. The emphasis placed by the special rapporteur on transparency, accountability and independent oversight is important, because our state has failed to recognise that in a democracy, citizens must be empowered as far as possible to demand and enforce their rights. Their rights cannot rest completely in the hands of civil servants, however senior. There is no excuse for refusing to put these safeguards in place, and making our domestic surveillance regime transparent and accountable, in compliance with our constitutional and international obligations.

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