Several Indian government agencies have been armed with sweeping powers to intercept, monitor and decrypt information from any computer in the country, a move that critics say aims to make India the next “Big Brother state”.
After India’s Home Ministry issued a notification on Thursday authorising 10 agencies with the power to tap, intercept and decrypt all personal data on computers and networks in India, opposition parties said the government is attempting to create a “surveillance state”.
Among the agencies that are now enabled to exercise these snooping powers are the Research and Analysis Wing, the main foreign-intelligence gathering body, and the Intelligence Bureau report directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi said this move showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “an insecure dictator”.
Converting India into a police state isn’t going to solve your problems, Modi Ji.
It’s only going to prove to over 1 billion Indians, what an insecure dictator you really are. https://t.co/KJhvQqwIV7
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) December 21, 2018
India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the move will help track “terrorists”.
“How else will terrorists who use technology extensively be traced? Otherwise, the terrorists will use IT, but the intelligence and investigative agencies will be crippled,” Jaitley tweeted.
Privacy advocates argue that widespread government surveillance of this kind will have a “chilling effect” on democratic debate and dissent. In the world’s largest democracy, data security and privacy regulations are still to be framed.
Even though the orders are supposed to target everyone, most analysts say they could possibly be used to crack down on critics, rights campaigners and political opponents in advance of a general election that is slated early next year.
“This would make data collection from critics and political opponents easier. This will facilitate targeted raids against the opposition and critics. In its ambition, this is similar to America’s spy programme PRISM. Indians need to press for surveillance reform urgently to protect us from a police state,” Srinivas Kodali, an independent security researcher in Hyderabad, told Al Jazeera.
Interception of phone calls was already authorized for certain federal agencies under India’s Telecom Act.
The absence of any oversight mechanism for such interception by federal agencies gives them untrammelled power, according to some analysts.
“This notification gives powers to a host of agencies with minimal oversight. There are no safeguards as to how this collected data will be dealt with, so concerns of civil society are not unwarranted. Governments once they are given unbridled power of this kind, end up almost routinely abusing it,” Sanjay Hegde, a supreme court lawyer, told Al Jazeera.
Indian intelligence agencies report straight to the prime minister and the home minister without any parliamentary or judicial oversight. On Friday, opposition parties disrupted Parliament, asking questions about the new notification.
Social media sites were also abuzz with criticism against the government move. While the Internet Freedom Foundation of India posted a “red alert” about the notification, a security researcher, who tweets under the pseudonym Elliot Alderson, described it as “a sad day for India”.
Right to privacy
In 2017, India’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that individual privacy is a fundamental right, a verdict that should have a significant bearing on civil rights.
On the question of whether Thursday’s notification would withstand legal scrutiny, lawyer Hegde said, “Courts often tend to duck these problems involving technology when faced with a broad spectrum challenge.”
“But a particular individual whose privacy is compromised can go to court and challenge this notification,” he said.
“It does not square with the recent right to privacy ruling of the top court but very often when questions of national security are used to defend anything, the court gives greater deference to government claims than to individual rights,” he added.
The right-wing BJP government said the new powers would help to protect the country against “terrorists” and other “national security threats”. But critics say the absence of requisite oversights only heightens fears about its intentions.