International Business Times 10 Feb 2017

India’s proposed mass surveillance programme seen as a blow to internet freedom 

by India Ashok

The Centralised Monitoring System will reportedly be fully operational by the first quarter of 2017.

India’s new mass surveillance project, dubbed Centralised Monitoring System (CMS), will reportedly be fully operational by the first quarter of 2017, according to a draft Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report, which is due to be reviewed by the UN in the coming months. Concerns have been raised by privacy experts over the programme potentially expanding the government’s control over internet rights and freedoms.

The draft report, which has broad similarities with previous editions, also reportedly comes with completely new topics related to the state’s role in controlling the internet. The new topics feature in two dedicated sub-sections titled “Fundamental Freedoms and Participation in Public and Political Life”, part of the “Civil and Political Rights” framework.

“India recognizes the importance of extending free speech guarantees to activities on the internet,” the report says, also highlighting the need to control “misuse of the internet for inciting violence, spreading rumours and hatred or committing other illegal activities”.

“In order to prevent arbitrary use of this power to block content on the internet, the Supreme Court of India has put in place various adequate procedural safeguards such as the right to appeal a blocking decision, and the requirement for reasons in writing for issuing a blocking order,” the report asserts.

A footnote in the report cites the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in a 2013 case which essentially halted any arrests under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. However the law, which was India’s primary measure in dealing with cybercrime and digital commerce, has since been comprehensively struck down.

A section in the report titled “Right to Privacy and Surveillance” asserts that the government has an inherent right to surveillance, citing security concerns. The government seeks to set up the CMS to automate the “lawful interception and monitoring of telecommunications”, which include voice data from users mobile phones, landlines and internet-related user data.

However, the government asserts in the draft report that it has placed appropriate safeguards to address “concerns about privacy and freedom of speech”.

“India believes that its surveillance programme furthers its national security interests, and that safeguards in the law, including safe transmission of content, requirement for authorisation from senior officials, and the existence of a review committee to oversee such authorisations, are sufficient to address concerns regarding privacy and freedom of speech,” the report states.

Privacy concerns

Privacy experts and activists have raised concerns over the scope of the CMS’ power and reach over citizens’ data. A 2016 report on India’s UPR by NGO Internet Democracy Project said: “No information has been made available about whose data will be collected, how the collected data will be used, or how long the data will be retained.”

India’s Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi has previously argued before the Supreme Court, attempting to seemingly diminish citizens’ privacy rights. “Violation of privacy doesn’t mean anything because privacy is not a guaranteed right,” he reportedly said.

More notably, India’s privacy bill has been languishing in the bowels of bureaucracy since 2014, according to multiple unspecified sources with knowledge of the matter, The Wire reported. India’s intelligence agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau, are believed to have been resistant towards implementation of full-fledged privacy legislation.

Originally published in International Business Times.