India has launched a wide-ranging surveillance program that will give its security agencies and even income tax officials the ability to tap directly into e-mails and phone calls without oversight by courts or parliament, several sources said.
The expanded surveillance in the world’s most populous democracy, which the government says will help safeguard national security, has alarmed privacy advocates at a time when allegations of massive US digital snooping beyond American shores has set off a global furor.
The Central Monitoring System (CMS) was announced in 2011 but there has been no public debate and the government has said little about how it will work or how it will ensure that the system is not abused.
The government started to quietly roll the system out state by state in April this year, according to government officials. Eventually it will be able to target any of India’s 900 million landline and mobile phone subscribers and 120 million Internet users.
Indian officials said making details of the project public would limit its effectiveness as a clandestine intelligence-gathering tool.
No independent oversight
The new system will allow the government to listen to and tape phone conversations, read e-mails and text messages, monitor posts on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and track searches on Google of selected targets, according to interviews with two other officials involved in setting up the new surveillance program, human rights activists and cyber experts.
In 2012, India sent in 4,750 requests to Google for user data, the highest in the world after the United States.
Security agencies will no longer need to seek a court order for surveillance or depend, as they do now, on internet or telephone service providers to give them the data, the government officials said.
Government intercept data servers are being built on the premises of private telecommunications firms. These will allow the government to tap into communications at will without telling the service providers, according to the officials and public documents.
The top bureaucrat in the federal interior ministry and his state-level deputies will have the power to approve requests for surveillance of specific phone numbers, e-mails or social media accounts, the government officials said.
While it is not unusual for governments to have equipment at telecommunication companies and service providers, they are usually required to submit warrants or be subject to other forms of independent oversight.
The government has arrested people in the past for critical social media posts although there have been no prosecutions.
In 2010, India’s Outlook news magazine accused intelligence officials of tapping telephone calls of several politicians, including a government minister. The accusations were never proven, but led to a political uproar.
No privacy law
Nine government agencies will be authorized to make intercept requests, including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s elite policy agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the domestic spy agency, and the income tax department.
India does not have a formal privacy law and the new surveillance system will operate under the Indian Telegraph Act – a law formulated by the British in 1885 – which gives the government freedom to monitor private conversations.
India has a long history of violence by separatist groups and other militants within its borders. More than one third of India’s 670 districts are affected by such violence, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. The government has escalated efforts to monitor the activities of militant groups since a Pakistan-based militant squad rampaged through Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people. Monitoring of telephones and the Internet are part of the surveillance.
India’s junior minister for information technology, Milind Deora, said the new data collection system would actually improve citizens’ privacy because telecommunications companies would no longer be directly involved in the surveillance – only government officials would.
Source: Times of India