The opening voice-over of the popular American series, Person of Interest, which shows several accounts of privacy breach throughout its five seasons, sounds exciting and thrilling, but the idea of being under surveillance is no longer a spy thriller fantasy.
The Indian government has brought in any of its 10 top central agencies under its empowerment policy to knock at your door and demand scrutiny of your computer or even pen drive. With this unfettered access to 10 agencies, the central government can snoop on any citizens now.
As per the Ministry of Home Affairs, 10 police and intelligence agencies have been authorised to "intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource." The agencies include:
- Intelligence Bureau
- Narcotics Control Bureau
- Enforcement Directorate
- Central Board of Direct Taxes
- Directorate of Revenue Intelligence
- National Investigation Agency
- Cabinet Secretariat (R&AW)
- Directorate of Signal Intelligence (in Jammu and Kashmir, North-East and Assam only)
- Delhi Police Commissioner
For those unaware, previously intercepting data in motion, such as calls and emails was allowed, but the revived Gazette of India extends the powers of scanning data that is at rest, which is stored in computers or even in pen drives. The aforementioned agencies will also have the powers to seize the devices. According to the section 69 (1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, refusal to provide access to data by any agency can be punished with imprisonment of up to 7 years. As per another previous order in 2011, agencies could access social media accounts and telephone intercepts.
In addition to granting a blanket right to snoop on its citizens, the government's order bounds subscribers and service providers to extend all facilities and technical assistance to the agencies. If there's defiance, seven-year imprisonment and fine can be imposed. In government's defence, these moves are for the "security of the state" and taken in "defence of India."
Right to privacy
While the MHA's order grants snooping rights to many agencies, it challenges the Supreme Court verdicts protecting Indian citizens' right to privacy.
"The right to privacy is a sacred and cherished right. There must be strong, cogent and legally justifiable reasons for law enforcement agencies to interfere with this right. Even then, proper procedure must be followed as intrusion into a person's home, professional or family life in the name of investigation or domiciliary visits without a proper basis is not permitted," according to the Supreme Court in Kharak Singh vs State of UP 1967 verdict.
A Supreme Court lawyer, Prashant Bhushan told TEHELKA that Supreme Court observes the act of phone tapping and CMS "illegal." But resistance towards snooping from government agencies is not only a concern shared by the citizen and the highest order of justice court.
The controversial order also draws a lot of fury from the opposition and privacy advocates. AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaise compared the government to Big Brother – which is in reference to the omnipotent character from George Orwell's dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted that the "Big Brother Syndrome' is truly embedded in NDA's DNA" referring the surveillance. Congress leader P Chidambaram, Sitaram Yechury, chief of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Jha, Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch Sunil Abraham – Co-coordinator of Centre for Internet security, also shared their strong resentment towards the right to snoop on Indian citizens.
India speaks out
Indians are voicing out their concerns about MHA's new order across various platforms. Internet Freedom Foundation started "Save Our Privacy" campaign, which has received support from over 10,000 people and 27 organisations.
Check out some of the reactions from people regarding MHA's amended snooping law.
WTH is going on. They're doing whatever they want to. Right to privacy is the fundamental right under the constitution of India and no legislation passed by govt unduly voilate it. Do government has their own constitution? Is there any democracy left in the country?— R&A (@ranjan7597) December 21, 2018
What guarantee does this govt provide that these data will not be used or shared to other Pvt companies employed by any of these 10 Agencies. Everybody knows importance of national security but such blanket authorization will be used in political or personal gains too @madan3— Arun (@aru_kiddo) December 21, 2018
For the fear of criminal elements we are made to surrender our liberties?— Mostlyogic (@LadakuVeemaan) December 21, 2018
Incompetency of state to provide security is not due to lack of tools but the lack of will.
I vehemently reject what today's govt order stands for and want my freedom restored.#DataPrivacy#SaveOurPrivacy
Yogi ji - Aaj se mobile phone ka naam computer. Baat khatam!!— ? ??? ??????? ? (@PresidentVerde) December 21, 2018
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