Despite the strides made in internet governance in India over the past few months — with the Supreme Court striking down the egregious Section 66A of the information technology act and the apparent concession by both government and regulator that the principle of net neutrality must be preserved for an open and democratic internet — little has happened to puncture the political consensus on the expansion of the state’s surveillance capabilities.
Instead, the NDA government has pledged to expedite the Orwellian Central Monitoring System (CMS), which has reportedly been languishing due to a lack of funds. The CMS, an ambitious programme aimed at giving the state the ability to listen in on and record phone calls and read private emails as well as text and multimedia messages, was fast-tracked after the Mumbai 2008 attacks, but has repeatedly missed completion deadlines.
Given India’s ignominious status as the second-most intensely cyber-attacked country, not to mention the terrorist threats it faces offline, it is no surprise that there is broad agreement within the political class on the usefulness of electronic surveillance, where the need for the CMS is explained away by placing it under the indefatigable banner of national security. What is dangerous about the CMS, though, isn’t the scope for pervasive online spying, but rather the lack of checks against abuse. The CMS allows senior bureaucrats too much discretion in approving requests for surveillance, which can be made by several government agencies, including the CBI and IB. No court warrant is required to get permission to monitor a citizen. There are also no laws to safeguard the data so collected.
The CMS has been critically — and accurately — compared to the US National Security Agency’s Prism programme, the leak of which sparked a conversation across the world on how a balance between the competing imperatives of national security and civil liberties could be struck without entirely compromising either. But while the combination of hand-wringing and shocked indignation that greeted Edward Snowden’s revelations has had real political consequences in the US and in countries like the UK and Australia, whose intelligence agencies were in cahoots with the NSA, these disclosures roused little more than a collective shrug from political leaders in India. The US’s ongoing and laborious attempts to curtail the activities of its intelligence agencies, despite the public outcry that ensued, point to the difficulties of downsizing an entrenched surveillance state. At the very least, India urgently needs a law to protect its citizens’ data and privacy from misuse.