India has no requirements of transparency whether in the form of disclosing the quantum of interception or in the form of notification to people whose communication was intercepted

The Gujarat telephone tapping controversy is just one of many kinds of abuse that surveillance systems enable. If a relatively primitive surveillance system can be misused so flagrantly despite safeguards that the government claims are adequate, imagine what is to come with the Central Monitoring System (CMS) and Netra in place.

News reports indicate Netra — a “NEtwork TRaffic Analysis system” — will intercept and examine communication over the Internet for keywords like “attack,” “bomb,” “blast” or “kill.” While phone tapping and the CMS monitor specific targets, Netra is vast and indiscriminate. It appears to be the Indian government’s first attempt at mass surveillance rather than surveillance of predetermined targets. It will scan tweets, status updates, emails, chat transcripts and even voice traffic over the Internet (including from platforms like Skype and Google Talk) in addition to scanning blogs and more public parts of the Internet. Whistle-blower Edward Snowden said of mass-surveillance dragnets that “they were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”

So far, our jurisprudence has dealt with only targeted surveillance; and even that in a woefully inadequate manner. This article discusses the slow evolution of the right to privacy in India, highlighting the context and manner in which it is protected. It then discusses international jurisprudence to demonstrate how the right to privacy might be protected more effectively.

Privacy and the Constitution

A proposal to include the right to privacy in the Constitution was rejected by the Constituent Assembly with very little debate. Separately, a proposal to give citizens an explicit fundamental right against unreasonable governmental search and seizure was also put before the Constituent Assembly. This proposal was supported by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. If accepted, it would have included within our Constitution the principles from which the United States derives its protection against state surveillance. However, the proposed amendment was rejected by the Constituent Assembly.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has gradually been reading the right to privacy into the fundamental rights explicitly listed in the Constitution. After its initial reluctance to affirm the right to privacy in the 1954 case of M.P. Sharma vs. Satish Chandra, the court came around to the view that other rights and liberties guaranteed in the Constitution would be seriously affected if the right to privacy was not protected. In Kharak Singh vs. The State of U.P., the court recognised “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” and declared that their right against unreasonable searches and seizures was not to be violated. The right to privacy here was conceived around the home, and unauthorised intrusions into homes were seen as interference with the right to personal liberty.

If the Kharak Singh judgment was progressive in its recognition of the right to privacy, it was conservative about the circumstances in which the right applies. The majority of judges held that shadowing a person could not be seen to interfere with that person’s liberty. Dissenting with the majority, Justice Subba Rao maintained that broad surveillance powers put innocent citizens at risk, and that the right to privacy is an integral part of personal liberty. He recognised that when a person is shadowed, her movements will be constricted, and will certainly not be free movements. His dissenting judgment showed remarkable foresight and his reasoning is consistent with what is now a universally acknowledged principle that there is a “chilling effect” on expression and action when people think that they are being watched.

The right to privacy as defined by the Supreme Court now extends beyond government intrusion into private homes. After Govind vs. State of M.P., and Dist. Registrar and Collector of Hyderabad vs. Canara Bank, this right is seen to protect persons and not places. Any inroads into this right for surveillance of communication must be for permissible reasons and according to just, fair and reasonable procedure. State action in violation of this procedure is open to a constitutional challenge.

Our meagre procedural safeguards against phone tapping were introduced in PUCL vs. Union of India (1997) after the Supreme Court was confronted with extensive, undocumented phone tapping by the government. The apex court found itself compelled to lay down what it saw as bare minimum safeguards, consisting mostly of proper record-keeping and internal executive oversight by senior officers such as the home secretary, the cabinet secretary, the law secretary and the telecommunications secretary. These safeguards are of little use since they are opaque and rely solely on members of the executive to review surveillance requests.

Right and safeguards

There is a difference between targeted surveillance in which reasons have to be given for surveillance of particular people, and the mass-surveillance which Netra sets up. The question of mass surveillance and its attendant safeguards has been considered by the European Court of Human Rights in Liberty and Others vs. the United Kingdom. Drawing upon its own past jurisprudence, the European Court insisted on reasonable procedural safeguards. It stated quite clearly that there are significant risks of arbitrariness when executive power is exercised in secret and that the law should be sufficiently clear to give citizens an adequate indication of the circumstances in which interception might take place. Additionally, the extent of discretion conferred and the manner of its exercise must be clear enough to protect individuals from arbitrary interference. The principles laid down by the European Court in relation to phone-tapping also require that the nature of the offences which may give rise to an interception order, the procedure to be followed for examining, using and storing the data obtained, the precautions to be taken when communicating the data to other parties, and the circumstances in which recordings may or must be erased or the tapes destroyed be made clear.

Opaque and ineffective

Our safeguards apply only to targeted surveillance, and require written requests to be provided and reviewed before telephone tapping or Internet interception is carried out. CMS makes the process of tapping more prone to misuse by the state, by making it even more opaque: if the state can intercept communication directly, without making requests to a private telecommunication service provider, then it is one less layer of scrutiny through which the abuse of power can reach the public. There is no one to ask whether the requisite paperwork is in place or to notice a dramatic increase in interception requests.

India has no requirements of transparency whether in the form of disclosing the quantum of interception taking place each year, or in the form of subsequent notification to people whose communication was intercepted. It does not even have external oversight in the form of an independent regulatory body or the judiciary to ensure that no abuse of surveillance systems takes place. Given these structural flaws, the Amit Shah controversy is just the beginning of what is to come. Unfettered mass surveillance does not bode well for democracy.

(Chinmayi Arun is research director, Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi, and fellow, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore.)

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