Delhi HC seeks Centre’s stand on PIL against NETRA, NATGRID surveillance systems

A view of Delhi High Court, in New Delhi. File photo   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

The Delhi High Court on Wednesday sought response from the Centre on a petition claiming that the citizens’ right to privacy was being “endangered” by surveillance programmes such as Centralised Monitoring System (CMS), Network Traffic Analysis (NETRA) and National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID).

A bench of Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Justice Prateek Jalan asked the ministries of Home Affairs, Information Technology, Communications, Defence and Law and Justice, to give their respective response on the plea by next date of hearing on January 7 next year.

The high court's order came on a petition by Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) and Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) seeking direction to permanently stop the execution and the operation of the surveillance projects such as CMS, NETRA, and NATGRID.

The petition also sought direction to constitute a permanent independent oversight body comprising of judicial and parliamentary body, for issuing and reviewing lawful interception and monitoring orders or warrants under the enabling provisions of Indian Telegraph Act and the Information Technology Act.

The plea said that CMS is a centralized system to monitor communications on mobile phones, landlines and Internet traffic in the country. It claimed that the functional features of CMS project allows for the state and authorized agencies to bypass the existing procedural safeguards to be followed while issuing Lawful Interception and Monitoring orders (LIMs).

It stated that NETRA is a massive dragnet surveillance system designed specifically to monitor the nation's internet networks including voice over internet traffic passing through software programs such as Skype or Google Talk, besides write-ups in tweets, status updates, emails, instant messaging transcripts, Internet calls, blogs and forums.

Additionally, the plea claimed that NATGRID project results in a real-time profiling of individuals through collection, aggregation, and analysis of metadata of individuals, which could reveal information such as civil, political, religious affiliation, social status, support to a charitable organization, subject's involvement in an intimate relationship and others.

The petition stated that the collection and aggregation of metadata of an individual's various transactions including communication, financial and travel information will result in a real time profiling of the entire population. "There is no law governing such profiling and the entire population is at the mercy of the government," the plea said.

Additionally, under the existing legal framework, there is an insufficient oversight mechanism to authorize and review the interception and monitoring orders issued by the state agencies. It contended that in India communications surveillance is currently permitted on a wide variety of broadly worded grounds, and this includes everything from "protection of national security" to "prevention of spread of computer viruses".

As per a 2014 RTI reply, around 7500 - 9000 telephone-interception orders per month were being issued by the Central government alone during 2013-2014 period.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 3:01:15 PM |

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