Way to watch

The domestic surveillance regime in India lacks adequate safeguards

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.

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