The Opposition parties led by Congress Friday came down heavily on the Narendra Modi-led central government after the latter authorised 10 central agencies to intercept information from any computer. Demanding the withdrawal of the order, the Opposition said it was a brazen assault on the citizens’ fundamental right to privacy.
The government, on the other hand, defended the move saying the rules for intercepting and monitoring computer data were framed in 2009 when the Congress-led UPA was in power and its new order only notified the designated authority which can carry out such action. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley slammed the opposition for “making a mountain where a molehill does not exist.”
The BJP said the order is legal with adequate safeguards and in the interest of national security, while Congress chief Rahul Gandhi told PM Modi that converting India into “police state” won’t solve his problems and that the move only showed he is an ‘insecure dictator’.
What is the ‘Surveillance’ order
On December 20, 2018, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order authorising 10 Central agencies to intercept, monitor, and decrypt “any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource under the said Act (section 69 of the IT Act, 2000)”.
The MHA order signed by Rajiv Gauba, Union Home Secretary, notes that: “In exercise of the powers conferred 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, the Competent Authority hereby authorises the following Security and Intelligence Agencies for the purposes of interception, monitoring and decryption of any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource under the said Act.”
The agencies that are authorised to have surveillance on your information and data are the Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, Cabinet Secretariat (RAW), Directorate of Signal Intelligence (for service areas of Jammu & Kashmir, North-east and Assam only) and the Commissioner of Police, Delhi.
According to the order, the subscriber or service provider or any person in charge of the computer resource will be bound to extend all facilities and technical assistance to the agencies and failing to do will invite seven-year imprisonment and fine.
What does the Information Technology act say?
As per the 2009 Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information Rules, directions for interception and monitor stored in any computer, can only be taken by an officer not below the rank of joint secretary in GOI, under unavoidable circumstances.
The 2009 order issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology says, “competent authority may authorise any agency of the govt to intercept, monitor, decrypt information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer source for purposes the specified in sub section (1) of section 69 of IT act.”
Clarifying its stance, the Home ministry said adequate safeguards are provided in the IT Act, 2000 and similar provisions and procedures already exist in the Telegraph Act along with “identical safeguards”. The ministry said “each case” of such computer interception, monitoring and decryption is “to be approved by the competent authority, which is the Union home secretary”.
According to rule 22 of the IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules 2009, all cases of interception or monitoring or decryption are to be placed before the review committee, headed by the cabinet secretary, which shall meet at least once in two months to review such cases, the statement said. In case of state governments, it added, such cases are reviewed by a committee headed by the chief secretary concerned.
Parliament debate on Surveillance order
On the eighth day of winter session, the issue rocked the Rajya Sabha when Congress leader Anand Sharma said the issue was serious and “India will become a police state” with such “sweeping powers” to agencies to intercept information.
Responding to the charge, Jaitley said it would have been better if the Opposition had obtained all information before raising this issue.
“So what you are doing Mr Anand Sharma is making a mountain where even a molehill does not exist.
“You must know this and as a the leader of the Opposition your word is sacrosanct, so don’t use it for a purpose where a power which you created, which is to be used in national security cases, now you are crying foul about that power.”
However, Gulam Nabi Azad said there was no mention of national security in the order. “The BJP seems to think it has ownership rights over national security and it means nothing to us.”
To this, Jaitley said: “These are elementary things. It is an authorisation order. The provisions of national security are written in Article 69… You are playing with the security of the country. That is what you have done just now”
Desperate for information, says Congress
The move has drawn criticism, with many calling it dangerous, and saying that this could be the beginning of further surveillance on citizens by the government. Accusing the Centre of snooping on citizens, Congress lashed out at the government over its “desperation for information”.
“From Modi Sarkar to stalker sarkar, clearly the string of losses has left the BJP government desperate for information,” the party posted on the micro-blogging site.
Veteran Congress leader P Chidambaram also condemned the order which, he claimed, is applicable in an “Orwellian state”. “If anybody is going to monitor the computer, including your computer, that is the Orwellian state. George Orwell is around the corner. It is condemnable,” he said.
How other parties reacted
Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) also joined the chorus against the government’s move. SP leader Ram Gopal Yadav termed the order unconstitutional and said the present government should refrain from making such moves with just a few months left for the general elections. “This government has only a few months left and it should not dig potholes for itself as a new government will be installed in the centre soon,” Yadav said.
TMC’s Mamata Banerjee tweeted: “If it is for National Security, then only for that purpose Central Government already has the machinery. But, why all commoners will be affected? Public Opinion please…”
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury slammed the move and said the order is unconstitutional and “in breach of the telephone tapping guidelines, the Privacy Judgement and the Aadhaar judgement.”
Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal said India was under “undeclared emergency” since May 2014 when BJP came to power at the Centre. “Now, in its last couple of months, the Modi govt is crossing all limits by seeking control of even the citizens computers. Can such curtailment of fundamental rights be tolerated in world’s largest democracy,” he said on Twitter.