The Countess of Snowdon, Princess Margaret, had once famously said, “I have as much privacy as a goldfish in a bowl.” While she did not expect her statement to hold so much relevance today, the truth in it is for all to see.
Is your online life private? (Image credit: Getty Images)
Never before in the history of the Internet has the topic of Internet surveillance, privacy or interception been more discussed than it is now. Thanks to the Internet, the world you and I live in is a well-connected one and it promises a whole range of options to explore and share. The recent developments in the world – the US PRISM programme being one – have forced one to worry about their privacy in the “digital world”. NSA contractor Edward Snowden first leaked classified documents to the press about the PRISM programme last month and ever since, the Internet has been abuzz with speculations surrounding the extent of user data in possession of the US government.
Data privacy in India and the Central Monitoring System
In India too, privacy continues to remain a topic of great debate and these have been only getting louder since the time the news about India’s Central Monitoring System got out. The CMS has been in the works for sometime now and it is expected to start functioning very soon. Once it is functional, the Rs 400 crore project will allow government agencies in the country to access all communication – online activities, phone calls, SMS, social media conversations and even the geographical location of individuals.
Simply put, using the CMS government agency officials like the National Investigation Agency or those in the tax department will have access to every byte of communication. According to The Centre for Internet & Society, the agencies that will have access to the nation's CMS include the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), the Narcotics Control Bureau, and the Enforcement Directorate (ED). The Central Monitoring System will be developed through C-DOT or The Centre for Development of Telematics. An autonomous body, C-DOT aims to develop telecommunication technology for the Indian telecommunication network.
Why is it worrying?
The IT law – enacted in 2000, amended in 2008 and in 2011 – confers upon government officials the authority to intercept phone calls, SMS, emails and even monitor websites, but only for "reasonable security practices and procedures".
While the move has national security at its helm, it is giving sleepless nights to those championing the cause of privacy and Internet freedom in the country. Last month, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote that with the installation of the CMS, the Indian government should put in place laws that ensure “increased surveillance of phones and the Internet does not undermine rights to privacy and free expression". Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director, The Centre for Internet & Society told us as a matter of fact that the CMS isn’t doing something completely new, since data interception happened even before it, albeit in a decentralised fashion. The new system, he said, will be essentially consolidating the two systems. Pranesh, in fact, went on to term both the existing system and CMS as “illegal”.
When reports about India's proposed CMS began doing the rounds, Pranesh in a detailed piece noted that taking into consideration India's weak privacy laws, "this kind of development is very worrisome." He further added that the task of setting up the CMS was done with neither public nor parliamentary dialogue, a stark contrast to the idea that in a democracy, the government ought to be accountable to its citizens.