By Anjani Trivedi
Prism, the contentious U.S. data-collection surveillance program, has captured the world’s attention ever since whistle-blower Edward Snowden leaked details of global spying to the Guardian and Washington Post. However, it turns out India, the world’s largest democracy, is building its own version to monitor internal communications in the name of national security. Yet India’s Central Monitoring System, or CMS, was not shrouded in secrecy — New Delhi announced its intentions to watch over its citizens, however mutedly, in 2011, and rollout is slated for August. And while reports that the American system collected 6.3 billion intelligence reports in India led to a lawsuit at the nation’s Supreme Court, comparable indignation has been conspicuously lacking with the domestic equivalent.
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CMS is an ambitious surveillance system that monitors text messages, social-media engagement and phone calls on landlines and cell phones, among other communications. That means 900 million landline and cell-phone users and 125 million Internet users. The project, which is being implemented by the government’s Centre for Development of Telematics (C‑DOT), is meant to help national law-enforcement agencies save time and avoid manual intervention, according to the Department of Telecommunications’ annual report. This has been in the works since 2008, when C‑DOT started working on a proof-of-concept, according to an older report. The government set aside approximately $150 million for the system as part of its 12th five-year plan, although the Cabinet ultimately approved a higher amount.
Within the internal-security ministry though, the surveillance system remains a relatively “hush-hush” topic, a project official unauthorized to speak to the press tells TIME. In April 2011, the Police Modernisation Division of the Home Affairs Ministry put out a 90-page tender to solicit bidders for communication-interception systems in every state and union territory of India. The system requirements included “live listening, recording, storage, playback, analysis, postprocessing” and voice recognition.
Civil-liberties groups concede that states often need to undertake targeted-monitoring operations. However, the move toward extensive “surveillance capabilities enabled by digital communications,” suggests that governments are now “casting the net wide, enabling intrusions into private lives,” according to Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch. This extensive communications surveillance through the likes of Prism and CMS are “out of the realm of judicial authorization and allow unregulated, secret surveillance, eliminating any transparency or accountability on the part of the state,” a recent U.N. report stated.
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India is no stranger to censorship and monitoring — tweets, blogs, books or songs are frequently blocked and banned. India ranked second only to the U.S. on Google’s list of user-data requests with 4,750 queries, up 52% from two years back, and removal requests from the government increased by 90% over the previous reporting period. While these were largely made through police or court orders, the new system will not require such a legal process. In recent times, India’s democratically elected government has barred access to certain websites and Twitter handles, restricted the number of outgoing text messages to five per person per day and arrested citizens for liking Facebook posts and tweeting. Historically too, censorship has been India’s preferred means of policing social unrest. “Freedom of expression, while broadly available in theory,” Ganguly tells TIME, “is endangered by abuse of various India laws.”
There is a growing discrepancy and power imbalance between citizens and the state, says Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project. And, in an environment like India where “no checks and balances [are] in place,” that is troubling. The potential for misuse and misunderstanding, Kovacs believes, is increasing enormously. Currently, India’s laws relevant to interception “disempower citizens by relying heavily on the executive to safeguard individuals’ constitutional rights,” a recent editorial noted. The power imbalance is often noticeable at public protests, as in the case of the New Delhi gang-rape incident in December, when the government shut down public transport near protest grounds and unlawfully detained demonstrators.
With an already sizeable and growing population of Internet users, the government’s worries too are on the rise. Netizens in India are set to triple to 330 million by 2016, according to a recent report. “As [governments] around the world grapple with the power of social media that can enable spontaneous street protests, there appears to be increasing surveillance,” Ganguly explains.
India’s junior minister for telecommunications attempted to explain the benefits of this system during a recent Google+ Hangout session. He acknowledged that CMS is something that “most people may not be aware of” because it’s “slightly technical.” A participant noted that the idea of such an intrusive system was worrying and he did not feel safe. The minister, though, insisted that it would “safeguard your privacy” and national security. Given the high-tech nature of CMS, he noted that telecom companies would no longer be part of the government’s surveillance process. India currently does not have formal privacy legislation to prohibit arbitrary monitoring. The new system comes under the jurisdiction of the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, which allows for monitoring communication in the “interest of public safety.”
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The surveillance system is not only an “abuse of privacy rights and security-agency overreach,” critics say, but also counterproductive in terms of security. In the process of collecting data to monitor criminal activity, the data itself may become a target for terrorists and criminals — a “honeypot,” according to Sunil Abraham, executive director of India’s Centre for Internet and Society. Additionally, the wide-ranging tapping undermines financial markets, Abraham says, by compromising confidentiality, trade secrets and intellectual property. What’s more, vulnerabilities will have to be built into the existing cyberinfrastructure to make way for such a system. Whether the nation’s patchy infrastructure will be able to handle a complex web of surveillance and networks, no one can say. That, Abraham contends, is what attackers will target.
National security has widely been cited as the reason for this system, but no one can say whether it will actually help avert terrorist activity. India’s own 9⁄11 is a case in point: the Indian government was handed intelligence by foreign agencies about the possibility of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, but did not act. This is a “clear indication that having access to massive amounts of data is not necessarily going to make people safer,” Kovacs tells TIME. However, officers familiar with the new system say it will not increase surveillance or enhance intrusion beyond current levels; it will only strengthen the policy framework of privacy and increase operational efficiency. Spokespersons and officials in the internal-security and telecom departments did not respond to requests or declined to comment.
The government has been cagey about details on implementation and extent. This ability to act however the authorities deems fit “just makes it really easy to slide into authoritarianism, and that is not acceptable for any democratic country,” Kovacs says. Indeed, India has seen that before — almost four decades ago, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency for 19 months, which suspended all civil liberties. Indians complaining about Prism may want to look a little closer to home.
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