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 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 users.
“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 Watch.
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 experts.
No privacy law
“The many abuses of phone tapping make clear that it 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.
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.
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 surveillance. 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.