More than one lakh phone tapping orders are issued by the central government every year, but the total number of such interceptions can be of a 'staggering scale' after taking into account the directions from state governments, a new study has found.
The study, 'India's surveillance state', prepared on the basis of RTI replies given by the government, also found that 26 companies including foreign firms expressed interest in setting up Internet monitoring systems for the government.
These included companies offering "far more potent surveillance technologies including phone interception, social media network analysis and data mining and profiling".
The study was conducted by Software Freedom Law Centre, a non-profit legal services organisation, and was released at recently held Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul.
"On an average, more than a lakh of telephone interception orders are issued by the central government alone every year. On adding the surveillance orders issued by the State Governments to this, it becomes clear that India routinely surveills her citizens’ communications on a truly staggering scale," the 68-page report said.
The state surveillance of citizens' private communications is authorised by legislative enactments such as the Indian Telegraph Act and the Information Technology Act, which allow Indian law enforcement agencies to closely monitor phone calls, texts, e-mails and general Internet activity on a number of broadly worded grounds.
The issue of phone tapping has often led to controversies in India including in 2010, when tapped conversations of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia with businessmen, politicians and journalists got leaked. Only a few agencies in India are authorised to tap phones and a rigorous screening process is said to be in place for grant of such authorisations.
As per the report, Network Traffic Analysis (NETRA) storage servers will be installed at more than 1000 locations across India.
The Controller of Certifying Authorities uses Section 28 of the IT Act, an ambiguous provision, to collect user data from technology companies. An RTI request revealed that they have made 73 requests under this provision in 2011.
The report noted that Indian laws, policies and practices with respect to surveillance are not in conformity with International Human Rights law.
It highlighted the need for a legal framework that protects the privacy of individuals.
"Considering the entire array of surveillance systems that directly threaten the right to privacy of Indian citizens, an overarching Privacy Act, which specifically incorporates these principles and sets up an enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance is an immediate necessity," the report said.
Communications surveillance is currently permitted on a wide variety of broadly worded grounds including everything from protection of national security to prevention of spread of computer viruses.
The report noted that concentrated effort on the part of all stake holders in the surveillance regime, including government, industry, civil society and General public will serve to transform India's surveillance state from its current state of "opacity to one of transparency, trust and efficiency".
The surveillance regime in its current state needs to be made more transparent, and public trust in this regard must be rebuilt, which will not happen without a greater degree of public participation, it said.
"Finally, citizens must have a legislatively recognised right to privacy, the violation of which will entitle them to constitutional remedies," it added.
If phone tapping makes me safe, I am all for it. Every western government taps phone on selected people they fear can do harm. India should continue tapping, and if necessary, allow foreign companies to use better technology to get more access. Better late than never.