Are India’s laws on surveillance a threat to privacy?

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark judgment that privacy is a fundamental right. There were celebrations across the nation after this judgment. Sadly, however, the same court completely changed its character a year later in the Aadhaar judgment. It upheld Aadhaar-PAN linkage and allowed the unique number to be used for government schemes and subsidies. Thus, the segment of the population that neither pays tax nor avails of any government subsidy is now left out. After this judgment, the wheels of governance seem to be rolling in a different direction. Apart from passing small but insidious executive orders on a regular basis, both the Central and State governments have now started taking steps to curtail the liberties of citizens.

Denying the right to privacy

The best example of this came to light recently. This month, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order granting authority to 10 Central agencies, including the Delhi Commissioner of Police, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, to pry on individual computers and their receipts and transmissions “under powers conferred on it by sub-section 1 of Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (21 of 2000), read with Rule 4 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009”. It has authorised these “security and intelligence agencies” to intercept, monitor and decrypt any “information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource”. This is seen as an extreme measure to deny people their right to privacy — more so because agencies such as the Delhi Police, the CBI, and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence cannot be strictly termed as organisations concerned with homeland security. Internal security is the main excuse being given for issuing such a directive. Given that the Lok Sabha election is to take place next year, the executive order seems to hint at a different game being played.

The sole fascination of this government seems to be collection of data. With an unquenchable thirst for information, the government at the Centre and most governments in the States have set out on a surveillance race. This will be the fastest process to turn India into a police state. While politicians change every five years, the country’s governance system is being left at the mercy of bureaucrats. It is this class of people which is pushing the ‘police state’ agenda. This especially becomes easy when the democratically elected leader starts suspecting every other elected member as well as citizens. Taking advantage of this mindset of paranoia and isolation, underlined with the greed for power, the bureaucrat seems the most trustworthy and harmless. It is obvious that he will not aspire for the ultimate throne that these apex politicians desire. This makes him a non-adversary.

Cloak-and-dagger surveillance

The MHA order that empowers these 10 agencies to do whatever they want makes it clear that panic has set in. This fear is a threat to democracy at large. With this kind of cloak-and-dagger surveillance being encouraged by the system, India might soon end up as a police state with bureaucrats at the lowest level having access to personal information of virtually every citizen.