All governments like to keep tabs on what their citizens are thinking. Given its agenda-setting role and its ability to influence public opinion, monitoring the media — print and electronic — has been government strategy for some time. The idea is to understand what issues are agitating people and how their perceptions are being shaped, tailoring communication plans accordingly. Social media offers a more immediate and less curated opportunity for the government to listen in, one that the NDA government, with a prime minister renowned for his prolific use of Twitter, has grabbed with alacrity. Though the new media wing housed at the ministry of information and broadcasting was created in 2013 by the UPA to be its online eyes and ears, the scope of its work has expanded dramatically in the past year. As this paper noted, reports prepared by this wing — five per day, on average — have assisted the government in shaping the narrative and in damage control exercises — for instance, dampening the brouhaha over the Chinese incursion in Ladakh during President Xi Jinping’s visit last year.
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Despite the exhaustive reports this new media wing passes up to the “appropriate authorities”, government agencies and officials must remember that social media offers only an incomplete and unrepresentative snapshot of the public square. This is, after all, still a country where less than a third of the people have access to the internet. What concerns Twitter might not reflect the preoccupations of the far wider swathe of people who do not give their outrage a regular airing online.
More importantly, this surveillance could acquire sinister overtones in the hands of the intelligence agencies, which reportedly use data collected by the special wing to ferret out terrorist threats. Do the IB and RAW limit their extensive online monitoring to what is public? Even if this wing is just a benign observer, the existence of other agencies, like the shadowy Central Monitoring System, underscores how urgently India needs privacy legislation that protects personal data from abuse. There is little accountability in case of overreach. Warrants are not needed to surveil a citizen under the CMS. It is enough for a senior bureaucrat to approve requests, which nine government agencies are empowered to make. While hearing a case on the legality of phone tapping under the Telegraph Act, the Supreme Court read the right to privacy in Article 21 of the Constitution. Parliament must move to enshrine safeguards and protections for citizen data in law.