Centre for Internet & Society

On July 4, 2014, the Centre for Internet and Society in association with the Cellular Operators Association of India organized a privacy roundtable at the India International Centre. The primary aim was to gain inputs on what would constitute an ideal surveillance regime in India.

Introduction: About the Privacy and Surveillance Roundtables

The Privacy and Surveillance Roundtables are a CIS initiative, in partnership with the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), as well as local partners. From June 2014 – November 2014, CIS and COAI will host seven Privacy and Surveillance Roundtable discussions across multiple cities in India. The Roundtables will be closed-door deliberations involving multiple stakeholders. Through the course of these discussions we aim to deliberate upon the current legal framework for surveillance in India, and discuss possible frameworks for surveillance in India. The provisions of the draft CIS Privacy Bill 2013, the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance, and the Report of the Group of Experts on Privacy will be used as background material and entry points into the discussion. The recommendations and dialogue from each roundtable will be compiled and submitted to the Department of Personnel and training

The second Privacy and Surveillance Roundtable was held in New Delhi at the India International Centre by the Centre for Internet and Society in collaboration with the Cellular Operators Association of India on the 4th of July, 2014.

The aim of the discussion was to gain inputs on what would constitute an ideal surveillance regime in India working with theCIS Draft Privacy Protection Bill, the Report of the Group of Experts on Privacy prepared by the Justice Shah committee, and the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.

Background and Context: Privacy and  Surveillance in India

The discussion began with the chair giving an overview of the legal framework that governs communications interception under Indian Law. The interception of telecommunication is governed by Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act,1885 and Rule 419A of the Telegraph Rules,1951. The framework under the Act has remained the same since it was drafted in 1885. An amendment to the Telegraph Rules in 1996 in light of the directions given under PUCL v Union of India was possibly the first change to this colonial framework barring a brief amendment in 1961.

During the drafting of the Act, the only two Indian members of the drafting committee objected to the wide scope given to interception under Section 5(2). In 1968, however, the 30th Law Commission Report studying Section 5(2) came to the conclusion that the standards in the Act may be unconstitutional given factors such as ‘public emergency’ were too wide in nature and called for a relook at the provision.

While the interception of postal mail is governed by Section 26 of the Post Office Act, 1898, the interception of modern forms of communication that use electronic information and traffic data are governed under Sections 69 and 69B of the Information Technology Act, 2000, while interception of telephonic conversations are governed by section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act 1885 and subsequent rules under section 419A.

What the law ought to be?
With the shift in time, the Chair noted that the concept of the law has changed from  its original colonial perspective. Cases such as Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, highlighted that an acceptable law must be one that is ‘just, fair and reasonable’. From judgments such as these, one can impute that any surveillance law should not be arbitrary and must comply with the principles of criminal procedure. Although this is ideal, recent matters that are at the heart of surveillance and privacy, such as the Nira Radia matter, currently sub-judice, will hopefully clarify the scope of surveillance that is considered permissible in India.

Why is it important now?
In India, the need to adopt a legislation on privacy came in the wake of the Indo-EU Free Trade Agreement negotiations, where a data adequacy assessment conducted by the European Commission showed that India’s data protection practices were weak. In response to this, the Department of Personnel and Training drafted a Privacy Bill, of which two drafts have been made, though the later draft has not been made available to the public.

The formation of a privacy proposal in India is not entirely new. For example in 1980, former Union minister VN Gadgil proposed a bill to deal with limiting reportage on public personalities. Much of this bill was based on a bill in the House of Lords in 1960 suggested by Lord Mancroft to prevent uncontrolled reporting. The chair notes here that in India privacy has developed comprehensively as a concept in response to the reporting practices of the media.

Although, the right to privacy has been recognised as an implicit part of the right to life under the Constitution, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution set up in February 2000 suggested the addition of a separate and distinct fundamental right to privacy under Article 21 B along the same lines of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

While these are notable efforts in the development of privacy, the Chair raised the question of whether India is merely 'inheriting' reports and negotiations, without adopting such standards into practice and a law.


Cloud base storage and surveillance

Opening up the discussion on electronic interception, a participant asked about the applicability of a Privacy regulation to cloud based services. Cloud based storage is of increasing relevance given that the cloud permits foreign software companies to store large amounts of customer information at little or no cost.

Indian jurisdiction, however, would be limited to a server that resides in India or a service provider that originates or terminates in India. Moving the servers back to India is a possible solution, however, it could have negative economic implications.In terms of telecommunications, any communications that originate or terminate using Indian satellites are protected from foreign interception.

Before delving into further discussion, the Chair posed the question of as to what kind of society we would like to live in, contrasting the individual based society principle and the community based principle. While the former is followed by most Western Nations as a form of governance, Orientalist and/or Asian tradition follows the community based principle where the larger focus is community rights. However, it would be incorrect to say that the latter system does not protect rights such as privacy, as often Western perceptions seem to imply. For example, the Chair points out that the oldest Hindu laws such as the Manu Smriti protected personal privacy.

Regulatory models for surveillance

After the preliminary discussion, the Chair then posed the fundamental question of how a government can regulate surveillance. During the discussion, a comparison was made between the UK, the US modus operandi i.e. the rule of probable cause coupled with exhaustion of other remedies, and the Indian rule based out of Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act, 1885. In the United States, wire taps cannot be conducted without a Judge’s authorization.For example, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs foreign persons, has secret courts. In addition, a participant added that surveillance requests in the US are rarely if ever, rejected. While on paper, the US model seems acceptable, most participants are weary of the practicability of such a system in India citing that a judiciary that is shielded from public scrutiny entirely cannot be truly independent. The UK follows an interception regime regulated by the Executive, the beginnings of which lay in its Telegraph Act in 1861, which the Indian Telegraph Act is based on. However, the interception regime of the UK has constantly changed with a steady re-evaluation of the law. Surveillance in the UK is regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000(RIPA), in addition it has draft bills pending on Data Retention and on the Admissibility of intercepted communications as evidence.

In contrast, India follows an executive framework, where the Home Secretary gives authorization for conducting wiretaps. This procedure can be compromised in emergent circumstances, where an officer not below the rank of a Joint Secretary can pass an order.

Participants agreed that the current system is grossly inadequate, and the Chair asked whether both a warrant and a judicial order based system would be appropriate for India.

Considering the judicial model as a possible option, participants thought of the level of judiciary apt for regulating matters on surveillance in India. While participants felt that High Court judges would be favourable, the immense backlog at the High Court level and the lack of judges is a challenge and risks being inefficient. If one were to accept the magistrate system, the Chair adds that there are executive magistrates within the hierarchy who are not judicial officers. To this, a participant posed the question as to whether a judicial model is truly a workable one and whether it should be abandoned. In response, a participant, iterated the Maneka Gandhi ratio that “A law must be just, fair and reasonable and be established to the satisfaction of a judicially trained mind”

It was then discussed how the alternative executive model is followed in India, and how sources disclose that police officers often use (and sometimes misuse) dedicated powers under Section 5(2), despite Rule 419A having narrowed down the scope of authority. A participant disagreed here, stating that most orders for the interception of communications are passed by the Home Secretary.

When the People’s Union for Civil Liberties challenged Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act, the Supreme Court held that it did not stand the test of Maneka Gandhi and proposed the set-up of a review committee under its guidelines which was institutionalised following an amendment in 2007 to the Telegraph Rules.

Under Rule 419A, a review committee comprises of officials such as the Cabinet Secretary, Secretary of the Department of Telecommunications, Secretary of the Department of Law and Justice and the Secretary of Information Technology and Communication ministry at the Centre and the Chief Secretary ,the Law Secretary and an officer not below the rank of a Principal secretary at the State level. A participant suggested that the Home Secretary should also be placed in the review committee to explain the reasons for allowing the interception.

Albeit Rule 419A states that the Review Committee sits twice a month, the actual review time according to conflicting reports is somewhere between a day to a week. The government mandates that such surveillance cannot continue for more than 180 days.

In contrast to the Indian regime, the UK has a Commissioner who reviews the reasons for the interception along with the volume of communication among other elements. The reports of such interceptions are made public after the commissioner decides whether it should be classified or declassified and individuals can challenge such interception at the Appellate Tribunal.

A participant asked whether in India, such a provision exists for informing the person under surveillance about the interception. A stakeholder answered that a citizen can find out whether somebody is intercepting his or her communications via the government but did not elaborate on how.

Authorities for authorizing interception

On the subject of the regulatory model, a participant asked whether magistrates would be competent enough to handle matters on interception. It was pointed out that although this is subjective, it can be said that a lower court judge does not apply the principles of constitutional law, which include privacy, among other rights.

Having rejected the possibility of High Court judges earlier in the discussion, certain participants felt that setting up a tribunal to handle issues related to surveillance could be a good option, considering the subject matter and specialisation of judges. Yet, it was pointed out that the problem with any judicial system, is delay that happens not merely inordinately but strategically with multiple applications being filed in multiple forums. In response, a participant suggested a more federal model with greater checks and balances, which certain others felt can only be found in an executive system.

The CIS Privacy Protection Bill and surveillance

Section 6 of the CIS Privacy Protection Bill lists the procedure for applying to a magistrate for a warrant for interception. One of the grounds listed in the Bill is the disclosure of all previously issued warrants with respect to the concerned person.

Under Section 7 of the Bill, cognisable offences that impact public interest are listed as grounds for interception. Considering the wide range of offences that are cognisable, there is debate on whether they all constitute serious enough offences to justify the interception of communications. For example, the bouncing of a cheque under the Negotiable Instruments Act is a cognisable offence in public interest, but is it serious enough an offence to justify the interception of communications? How should this, then be classified so as to not make arbitrary classifications and manage national security is another question raised by the Chair.

The example of Nira Radia and the fact that the income tax authorities requested the surveillance demonstrates the subsisting lack of a framework for limiting access to information in India. A participant suggested that a solution could be to define the government agencies empowered to intercept communications and identify the offences that justify the interception of communications under Section 7 of the CIS Privacy Protection Bill.

During the discussion, it was pointed out that the Government Privacy Bill, 2011 gives a broad mandate to conduct interception that goes beyond the reasonable restrictions under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. For example, among grounds for interception like friendly relations with other States, Security and public disorder, there are also vague grounds for interception such as the protection of the rights and freedoms of others and any other purpose mentioned within the Act.

Although the Justice Shah report did not recommend that “any other purpose within the Act” be a ground for interception, it did recommend “protection of the freedom of others” continue to be listed as a permissible ground for the interception of communications.

Meta-data and surveillance

Under Section 17 of the Draft Bill, metadata can be intercepted on grounds of national security or commission of an offence. Metadata is not protected under Rule 419A of the Telegraph Rules and a participant asked as to why this is. The Chair then posed the question to the conference of whether there should be a distinction between the two forms of data at all.

While participants agreed that Telecommunication Service Providers store meta data and not content data, there is a need according to certain participants, to circumscribe the limits of permissible metadata collection. These participants advocated for a uniform standard of protection for both meta and content data, whereas another participant felt that there needs to be a distinction between content data and meta data. Certain participants also stressed that defining what amounts to metadata is essential in this regard.

The Chair moved on to discussing the provisions relating to communication service providers under Chapter V. It was noted that this section will be irrelevant however, if the Central Monitoring System comes into force, as it will allow interception to be conducted by the Government independent of service providers.

Data Retention and Surveillance

Data can be classified into two kinds for the purposes of interception, i.e. content and Meta data. Content data represents the content in the communication in itself whereas Meta data is the information about the communication.

Telecommunications service providers are legally required to retain metadata for the previous year under the Universal Access Service Terms, although no maximum time limit on retention has been legally established.

A participant highlighted that the principle of necessity has been ignored completely in India and there is currently a practice of mass data collection. In particular, metadata is collected freely by companies, as it is not considered an invasion of privacy.

Another stakeholder mentioned that nodal officers set up under every Telecommunication Service Provider are summoned to court to explain the obtainment of the intercepted data. The participant mentions that Telecom Service Providers are reluctant to explain the process of each interception, questioning as to why Telecom Service Providers must be involved in judicial proceedings regarding the admissibility of evidence when they merely supply the data.

A participant asked as to where a Grievance Redressal mechanism can be fit in within the current surveillance framework in India. In response, it was noted that with a Magistrate model, procedure cannot be prescribed as Criminal Procedure would apply. However, if tribunals were to be created, a procedure that deals with the concerns of multiple stakeholders would be apt.

A doubt raised by a stakeholder was whether prior sanction could be invoked by public servants against surveillance. Its applicability must be seen on a case to case basis, although for the most part, prior sanction would not be applicable considering that public officials accused of offences are not be entitled to prior sanction.

Section 14 of the CIS Privacy Protection Bill prohibits the sharing of information collected by surveillance with persons other than authorised authorities in an event of national security or the commission of a cognisable offence. Participants agreed that the wording of the section was too wide and could be misused.

A participant also pointed out that in practice, such parameters on disclosure are futile as even on civil family matters, metadata is shared amongst the service provider and the individuals that request it.

With relation to metadata, a participant suggested a maximum retention period of 2 years. As pointed out earlier, Call Detail Records, a service provider must retain the information for at least one year, however, there is no limit placed on retention, and destruction of the same is left to the discretion of the service provider. Generally it was agreed by participants that a great deal more clarity is needed as currently the UASL merely states that Internet Protocol Detail Record (IPDR) should be maintained for a year.

Duties of the Service Provider

Under the CIS Privacy Protection Bill , the duties of Telecommunication Service Providers broadly includes ‘measures to protect privacy and confidentiality’ without further elaboration. A participant mentioned that applicable and specific privacy practices for different industries need to be defined. Another participant stressed that such practices should be based in principles and not based in technology - citing rapidly evolving technology and the obsolete government standards that are meant to be followed as security practices for ISPs.

Another area that needs attention according to a participant is the integrity of information after interception is conducted. Participants also felt that audit practices by Telecommunication Service Providers should be confined to examining the procedures followed by the company, and not examine content, which is currently the practice according to other participants.

A participant also mentioned that standards do not be prescribed to Telco's considering the Department of Telecommunications conducts technical audits. Another participant felt that the existing system on audits is inadequate and perhaps a different model standard should be suggested. The Chair suggests that a model akin to the Statement on Auditing Standards that has trained persons acting as auditors could fair better and give security to Telco's by ensuring immunity for proceedings based on compliance with the standards.

The next issue discussed was whether surveillance requests can be ignored by Telco's, and whether Telco's can be held liable for repeatedly ignoring interception requests. A stakeholder replied that although there are no rules for such compliance, a hierarchal acquiescence exists which negates any flexibility.

Admissibility of Evidence

The significance given to intercepted communications as evidence was the next question put forth by the Chair. For example in the US, the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ rule is followed where evidence that has been improperly received discredits its admissibility in law as well as further evidence found on the basis of it. In India, however, intercepted communications are accorded full evidentiary value, irrespective of how such evidence is procured. The 1972 Supreme Court Judgment of Malkani v State of Maharashtra, reiterated a seminal UK judgment, Kuruma, Son of Kanju v. R , which stated that if the evidence was admissible it is irrelevant how it was obtained.

Participants suggested more interaction with the actual investigative process of surveillance, which includes prosecutors and investigators to gain a better understanding of how evidence is collected and assessed.


The Roundtable in Delhi was not a discussion on surveillance trapped in theory but a practical exposition on the realities of governance and surveillance. There seemed to be two perspectives on the regulatory model both supported with workable solutions, although the overall agreement was on an organised executive model with accountability and a review system. In addition, inputs on technology and its bearing on the surveillance regime were informative. A clear difference of opinion was presented here on the kind of protection metadata should be accorded. In addition, feedback from stakeholders on how surveillance is conducted at the service provider level, highlight the need for an overhaul of the regime, incorporating multiple stakeholder concerns.

1994 4 SCC 569

The definition of telegraph was expanded with the Telegraph Laws (Amendment) Act, 1961 under Section 3 (1AA) to ‘‘telegraph’ means any appliance, instrument, material or apparatus used or capable of use for transmission or reception of signs, signals, writing, images and sounds orintelligence of any nature by wire, visual or other electro-magnetic emissions, radio waves or Hertzian waves, galvanic, electric or magnetic means.

Explanation.—’Radio waves’ or ‘Hertzian waves’ means electromagnetic waves of frequencies lower than 3,000 giga-cycles per second propagated in space without artificial guide;]

1978 AIR 597

Art 21-B-“Every person has a right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”, Accessed at < http://lawmin.nic.in/ncrwc/finalreport/v1ch3.htm>

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights mentions

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Article 8 was invoked in Rajagopal v State of Tamil Nadu (1995 AIR 264)

PUCL v Union of India, (1997) 1 SCC 301

IPDR measures bandwidth and monitors internet traffic.

[1955] A.C. 197

The views and opinions expressed on this page are those of their individual authors. Unless the opposite is explicitly stated, or unless the opposite may be reasonably inferred, CIS does not subscribe to these views and opinions which belong to their individual authors. CIS does not accept any responsibility, legal or otherwise, for the views and opinions of these individual authors. For an official statement from CIS on a particular issue, please contact us directly.