The Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL) — a central public sector enterprise (CPSE) under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting — had, on August 25, floated a tender to invite bids for “empanelment of agencies”, which have monitoring capabilities on various digital and social media channels and can “provide a complete picture of customer’s behaviour” by drawing data from their social media networks.
The tender, which seeks to build this platform for various ministries and their departments, had sought bids till September 7. The scope of work of the agencies to be empanelled also includes them being able to engages with customers across digital channels such as email, chat, social media and others in real time by “combining intelligent filtering and routing with comprehensive listening”.
According to the bid document, a copy of which The Indian Express has seen,the selected agency should be able to “provide monitoring capabilities on various digital channels including social channels like Twitter, Facebook and others social media networks.”
The tender is at least tenth direct instance of the central government seeking bids to monitor social media and other accounts of citizens. One of the first tenders that sought bids from “media monitoring agencies” to monitor Twitter was floated by the Ministry of External Affairs in 2014.
In 2015, 2016 and 2017, BECIL itself floated three tenders seeking bids from agencies for establishment of a “social media communication hub”, which would have monitoring capabilities. In April 2018, yet another tender floated by the CPSE had invited agencies to provide a “social media analytical tool” that could “collect digital media chatter from all core social media platforms”.
The 2018 tender, like the one floated this August, too had sought that the agencies should provide capabilities to “listen” to emails and social media posts. The tender was later withdrawn in August 2018 when the Supreme Court, while hearing a plea challenging the April tender, had warned that the plan of the ministry could turn the country into a “surveillance state”.
Similarly, this June, BECIL had floated another controversial tender inviting agencies to provide “solution and services” related to “fact verification and disinformation detection” on social media platforms. The said tender had sought that companies should be able to “identify key influencers behind disinformation” and obtain their geo-location.
All the bids floated by government agencies like BECIL have come in spite of a nine-judge unanimous verdict of Supreme Court in 2017, which had held that Right to Privacy of an individual was a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution of India. Such tenders, seeking to monitor users’ social media profile and derive data from their behaviour, open up avenues for illegal snooping and surveillance by the government, cyber-security law experts said.
Till date, the country does not have a personal or non-personal data protection regime or law. Though the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has, as recently as April, said it was working on the final contours of the Information Technology Intermediary Guidelines and Guidelines for use of Social Media
Regulations 2020, a final draft of the rules is yet to be made public.
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