THE DELHI High Court on Tuesday asked the Central government to apprise it about the legal procedure being followed in monitoring phones and interception of phone calls. The court passed the order while asking the Centre to file a detailed reply to a petition seeking permanent halting of three surveillance projects – Centralized Monitoring System (CMS), Network Traffic Analysis (NETRA) and National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID).\
The division bench of Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice Jyoti Singh listed the case for hearing on September 30 after the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta sought time to file a detailed affidavit. Advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing the petitioners – Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) and Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC.in) – submitted that the short affidavit filed earlier did not answer the averments made in the petition regarding the three projects and phone tapping.
Mehta, while referring to the PIL argued that, “these are all not public interest issues. these are all some surrogate issues”. He also submitted that the Central government will respond to whatever it finds to be “relevant and significant”.
The Centre in February, in a reply, told the court that though the right to privacy has been held to be a “sacred” fundamental right and is being respected by the government of India, the “veil of privacy” can be lifted for certain legitimate state interests. The government said lawful interception or monitoring or decryption of any messages or information stored in any computer resources is done by authorised agencies after due approval of each case by the competent authority. The government also said that there is no blanket permission to any agency for interception or monitoring or decryption.
The petitioners argue that CMS, NETRA and NATGRID enable government authorities to intercept, store, analyse and retain telephone and internet communications data in bulk allegedly in violation of the basic fundamental right to privacy.
The PIL seeks a direction for constituting a permanent and independent oversight authority – judicial or parliamentary – for authorising and reviewing the interception and monitoring orders or warrants issued under the Telegraph Act, 1885 and the IT Act, 2000. Bhushan had earlier argued that the three systems allow the government to carry out “360 degree surveillance” of all citizens, including the judges of courts.
Citing information received under the RTI Act, Bhushan had submitted in a previous hearing that 7,500-9,000 permissions per month are being obtained by government authorities for tapping phones, adding that the review committee meets only once in two months – meaning they would have to examine examine 15,000-18,000 such requests in each meeting. The data, as per the plea, pertains to the 2013-2014 period.