Centre for Internet & Society

Cyber security in India is still a nascent field without an organised law and policy framework. Several actors participate in and are affected by India's still inchoate cyber security regime. The National Cyber Security Policy (NCSP) presented the government and other stakeholders with an opportune moment to understand existing legal limitations before devising a future framework. Unfortunately, the NCSP's poor drafting and meaningless provisions do not advance the field.

This article was published in the Observer Research Foundation's Cyber Security Monitor Vol. I, Issue.1, August 2013.

For some time now, law and policy observers in India have been noticing a definite decline in the quality of national policies emanating from the Central Government. Unlike legislation, which is notionally subject to debate in the Parliament of India, policies face no public evaluation before they are brought in to force. Since, unlike legislation, policies are neither binding nor enforceable, there has been no principled ground for demanding public deliberation of significant national policies. While Parliament’s falling standard of competence has been almost unanimously condemned, there has been nearly no criticism of the corresponding failure of the Centre to invigilate the quality of the official policies of its ministries. Luckily for the drafters of the National Cyber Security Policy (NCSP), the rest of the country has also mostly failed to notice its poor content.

The NCSP was notified into effect on 2 July 2013 by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology – which calls itself DeitY – of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. As far as legislation and legal drafting go, DeitY has a dubious record. In March 2013, in a parliamentary appraisal of subordinate law framed by DeitY, a Lok Sabha committee found ambiguity, invasions of privacy and potentially illegal clauses. Apprehensions about statutory law administered by DeitY have also found their way to the Supreme Court of India, where a constitutional challenge to certain provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act) continues. On more than one occasion, owing to poor drafting, DeitY has been forced to issue advisories and press releases to clarify the meaning of its laws. Ironically, the legal validity of these clarifications is also questionable.

A national policy must set out, in real and quantifiable terms, the objectives of the government in a particular field within a specified time frame. To do that, the policy must provide the social, economic, political and legal context prevalent at the time of its issue as well as a normative statement of factual conditions it seeks to achieve at the time of its expiry. Between these two points in time, the policy must identify and explain all the particular social, economic, political and legal measures it intends to implement to secure its success. Albeit concerned solely with economic growth, the Five-Year Plans – the Second and Tenth Plans in particular, without prejudice to their success or failure, are samples of policies that are well-drafted. In this background, the NCSP should be judged on the basis of how it addresses, in no particular order, national security, democratic freedoms, economic growth and knowledge development. Let us restrict ourselves to the first two issues.

There are broadly two intersections between national security and information technology; these are: (i) the security of networked communications used by the armed forces and intelligence services, and (ii) the storage of civil information of national importance. While the NCSP makes no mention of it, the adoption of the doctrine of network-centric warfare by the three armed forces is underway. Understanding the doctrine is simple – an intensive use of information technology to create networks of information aids situational awareness and enables collaboration to bestow an advantage in combat. However, the doctrine is vulnerable to asymmetric attack using both primitive and highly sophisticated means. Pre-empting such attacks should be a primary policy concern; not so, apparently, for the NCSP which is completely silent on this issue. The NCSP is slightly more forthcoming on the protection of critical information infrastructure of a civil nature. Critical information infrastructure, such as the national power grid or the Aadhar database, is narrowly defined in section 70 of the IT Act where it used to describe a protected system. Other provisions of the IT Act also deal with the protection of critical information infrastructure. The NCSP does not explain how these statutory provisions have worked or failed, as the case may be, to necessitate further mention in a policy document. For instance, section 70A of the IT Act, inserted in 2008, enables the creation of a national nodal agency to undertake research and development and other activities in respect of critical information infrastructure. Despite this, five years later, the NCSP makes a similar recommendation to operate a National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre to undertake the same activities. In the absence of any meaningful explanation of intended policy measures, there is no reason to expect that the NCSP will succeed where an Act of Parliament has failed.

But, putting aside the shortcomings of its piece-meal provisions, the NCSP also fails to address high-level conceptual policy concerns. As information repositories and governance services through information technology become increasingly integrated and centralised, the security of the information that is stored or distributed decreases. Whether by intent or error, if these consolidated repositories of information are compromised, the quantity of information susceptible to damage is greater leading to higher insecurity. Simply put, if power transmission is centrally controlled instead of zonally, a single attack could black out the entire country instead of only a part of it. Or if personal data of citizens is centrally stored, a single leak could compromise the privacy of millions of people instead of only hundreds. Therefore, a credible policy must, before it advocates greater centralisation of information, examine the merits of diffused information storage to protect national security. The NCSP utterly fails in this regard.

Concerns short of national security, such as the maintenance of law and order, are also in issue because crime is often planned and perpetrated using information technology. The prevention of crime before it is committed and its prosecution afterwards is a key policy concern. While the specific context may vary depending on the nature of the crime – the facts of terrorism are different from those of insurance fraud – the principles of constitutional and criminal law continue to apply. However, the NCSP neither examines the present framework of cybersecurity-related offences nor suggests any changes in existing law. It merely calls for a “dynamic legal framework and its periodic review to address the cyber security challenges” (sic). This is self-evident, there was no need for a new national policy to make this discovery; and, ironically, it fails to conduct the very periodic review that it envisages. This is worrying because the NCSP presented DeitY with an opportunity to review existing laws and learn from past mistakes. There are concerns that cybersecurity laws, especially relevant provisions of the IT Act and its rules, betray a lack of understanding of India’s constitutional scheme. This is exemplified by the insertion, in 2008, of section 66A into the IT Act that criminalises the sending of annoying, offensive and inconvenient electronic messages without regard for the fact that free speech that is annoying is constitutionally protected.

In India, cybersecurity law and policy attempts to compensate for the state’s inability to regulate the internet by overreaching into and encroaching upon democratic freedoms. The Central Monitoring System (CMS) that is being assembled by the Centre is a case in point. Alarmed at its inability to be privy to private communications, the Centre proposes to build systems to intercept, in real time, all voice and data traffic in India. Whereas liberal democracies around the world require such interceptions to be judicially sanctioned, warranted and supported by probable cause, India does not even have statutory law to regulate such an enterprise. Given that, once completed, the CMS will represent the largest domestic interception effort in the world, the failure of the NCSP to examine the effect of such an exercise on daily cybersecurity is bewildering. This is made worse by the fact that the state does not possess the technological competence to build such a system by itself and is currently tendering private companies for equipment. The state’s incompetence is best portrayed by the activities of the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) that was constituted under section 70B of the IT Act to respond to “cyber incidents”. CERT-In has repeatedly engaged in extra-judicial censorship and has ham-handedly responded to allegedly objectionable blogs or websites by blocking access to entire domains. Unfortunately, the NCSP, while reiterating the operations of CERT-In, attempts no evaluation of its activities precluding the scope for any meaningful policy measures.

The NCSP’s poor drafting, meaningless provisions, deficiency of analysis and lack of stated measures renders it hollow. Its notification into force adds little to the public or intellectual debate about cybersecurity and does nothing to further the trajectory of either national security or democratic freedoms in India. In fairness, this problem afflicts many other national policies. There is a need to revisit the high intellectual and practical standards set by most national policies that were issued in the years following Independence.

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