'Authoritarian' new Indian Central Monitoring System criticised for bypassing courts to monitor user activity seemingly without restriction.
A new monitoring regime deployed in India in April will enable security agencies to spy on citizens without any legal constraints or restrictions. Sources familiar with the project have revealed that the Central Monitoring System (CMS) will enable authorities to tap directly into phone conversations, emails and text messages, as well as monitoring posts on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and tracking searches on Google.
The CMS was announced in 2011 with little accompanying information from the Indian government regarding the specifics and the control mechanisms that would be put in place to prevent abuse. It has now been reported that it will eventually enable authorities to spy on anyone from India’s 900 million landline and mobile users or 120 million Internet users.
The country’s representatives say the sole purpose of the CMS is to protect the country against terrorism, and they remain adamant that disclosing details about the system would make the whole venture far less efficient.
Human rights experts fear it may put innocent people at risk. "If India doesn't want to look like an authoritarian regime, it needs to be transparent about who will be authorised to collect data, what data will be collected, how it will be used, and how the right to privacy will be protected," said Cynthia Wong, an Internet researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
India does not have anything like a formal privacy law in place, and the new surveillance system will simply operate under the Telegraph Act that was formulated in 1885 when the country was under British rule.
To back the new surveillance system, government data servers are currently being built on the premises of private telecommunications firms that will enable the security agencies to gain absolute freedom regarding whom they want to monitor. So far, they have had to seek court orders for surveillance, and were dependent on Internet or telephone service providers to give them data. The decision-making power as to who can or cannot be monitored will from now on be solely in the hands of the federal interior ministry.
"Bypassing courts is really very dangerous and can be easily misused," said Pawan Sinha, who teaches human rights at Delhi University. However, a senior telecommunications ministry official disagrees: "If at all the government reads your emails, or taps your phone, that will be done for a good reason. It is not invading your privacy, it is protecting you and your country," he said.
In 2012 India was, according to published information, the world’s second most active seeker of user data after the USA, sending over 4,700 requests to Google.
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. Altogether nine government agencies will be authorised 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.