| NEW DELHI, June 20
NEW DELHI, June 20 India has launched a
wide-ranging surveillance programme 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 U.S. digital snooping beyond American
shores has set off a global furore.
"If India doesn't want to look like an authoritarian regime,
it needs to be transparent about who will be authorized 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
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
Interior ministry spokesman K.S. Dhatwalia said he did not
have details of CMS and therefore could not comment on the
privacy concerns. A spokeswoman for the telecommunications
ministry, which will oversee CMS, did not respond to queries.
Indian officials said making details of the project public
would limit its effectiveness as a clandestine
"Security of the country is very important. All countries
have these surveillance programmes," said a senior
telecommunications ministry official, defending the need for a
large-scale eavesdropping system like CMS.
"You can see terrorists getting caught, you see crimes being
stopped. You need surveillance. This is to protect you and your
country," said the official, who is directly involved in setting
up the project. He did not want to be identified because of the
sensitivity of the subject.
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 programme, human rights activists and cyber
In 2012, India sent in 4,750 requests to Google Inc
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
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.
"Bypassing courts is really very dangerous and can be easily
misused," said Pawan Sinha, who teaches human rights at Delhi
University. In most countries in Europe and in the United
States, security agencies were obliged to seek court approval or
had to function with legal oversight, he said.
The senior telecommunications ministry official dismissed
suggestions that India's system could be open to abuse.
"The home secretary has to have some substantial
intelligence input to approve any kind of call tapping or call
monitoring. He is not going to randomly decide to tape anybody's
phone calls," he said.
"If at all the government reads your e-mails, 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.
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
"The many abuses of phone tapping make clear that that is
not a good way to organise the system of checks and balances,"
said Anja Kovacs, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for
Internet and Society.
"When similar rules are used for even more extensive
monitoring and surveillance, as seems to be the case with CMS,
the dangers of abuse and their implications for individuals are
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.
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.
"We are obligated by law to give access to our networks to
every legal enforcement agency," said Rajan Mathews, director
general of the Cellular Operators Association of India.
Telecommunications companies Bharti Airtel,
Vodafone's India unit, Idea Cellular, Tata
Communications and state-run MTNL did not
respond to requests for comment.
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
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.
"The mobile company will have no knowledge about whose phone
conversation is being intercepted", Deora told a Google Hangout,
an online forum, earlier this month.