People under surveillance, Privacy law for whom ?

November 5, 2012

by Ranjit Sur

India is probably heading for enactment of an Individual Privacy Law. On 16 October, the fourteen member committee headed by Justice(Rtd) A P Shah submitted its report to the Planning Commission, which had initiated the process by forming this committee. In its 90 page report, the committee tried to address the complexities of the issue. Justice Shah in his forwarding letter wrote, “So we can expect an initiative for enactment of the law soon”. At the same time, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also expressed his desire to have such a law while expressing his concern for misuse of RTI act by “frivolous and vexatious use of the Act”. “The citizens’ right to know should definitely be circumscribed if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone’s personal privacy. The issue of a separate legislation on privacy is under consideration of an expert group under Justice AP Shah.” He said this while addressing a convention of Information Commissioners recently.

The day Manmohan Singh’s speech was reported, the New Delhi edition of The Hindu published an interesting report with the heading “10,000 phones, 1,000 e-mail IDs under the scanner” . The report informed, “Today, various law enforcement agencies are tapping almost 10,000 phones across India, while over 1,000 e-mail accounts are under the scanner, after clearance from the union Home Secretary. …In August this year, the maximum number of phones were being tapped by the Intelligence Bureau (5,966) of which 2,135 were fresh interceptions, while 3,831 were in continuation. Similarly, the State Intelligence units were tapping 1,104 phones (577 fresh and 527 in continuation) followed by the Andhra Pradesh Police with 863 phone interceptions (399 fresh and 464 in continuation) and the Delhi Police with 757 phones (738 fresh and 19 in continuation). ………. In the case of e-mails, the IB was snooping on 1,043 IDs in August — 460 under fresh sanction and 583 in continuation, while the State Intelligence units were tracking 136 (94 fresh and 42 in continuation); the DRI took permission from the Union Home Secretary to track 5 accounts….. Notably, to avoid any leaks, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has developed capabilities to intercept phones without keeping telephone operators in the loop. Called the “Central Monitoring System”, its trials are currently on and the system is likely to be in place early next year.”

So it is clear that the Government of India is tapping and hacking hundreds and thousands of phones and emails; thus violating individual privacy of hundreds and thousands of citizens. It is known to all that the unofficial figures of tapped-phones/hacked-emails are perhaps much higher than what The Hindu reported. Almost all the State Governments tap phones of innumerable opposition leader and activists. Even the Chief Minister of Bengal Ms Mamata Banerjee recently complained that her phone was being tapped by the Central Government. Hundreds of activists in Bengal paradoxically also complain of their phone being tapped by WB Government. So the question is, for whom the privacy law will be enacted?

In August 2011, Mr. Milind Deora, the Central Minister of State for Communication in a written statement in the Rajya Sabha, informed that the Central Government has started full surveillance of Facebook and Twitter walls and friend circles. All the comments, write-ups on walls are under full scanner of investigative agencies. Not only that, the Government has acquired technology to block and monitor websites and blogs, locally and centrally. On many occasions, The Hoot has reported many such misdeeds of the government. Recently Facebook, Twitter and You Tube were blocked in Jammu and Kashmir. Sites of cartoonist Asim Trivedi and Kamayani Bali were also blocked. Section 66(A) of the IT Act [1] has become a source of tension for many activists. Many mobile phones of Bengal activists have been disconnected for alleged misuse of this Act. Actually any one can be sent to jail for violation of this section on ‘Offensive SMS’ where ‘offensive’ is defined in such a manner. So again a question arises – do lakhs of Facebook-Twitter users not have the right to privacy? Don’t they have the freedom of expression and right to information and communication as enshrined in Indian constitution? For whom will the Individual Privacy Law be enacted? Who are these individuals?

One more Act which is waiting in queue, as reported in DNA dated 16 May 2012, needs serious attention of the Civil Society. The report, DNA profiling: Very soon, govt will know you inside out reported, “In a controversial move that threatens to increase the intrusion by the state into the lives of ordinary citizens, the UPA government is set to introduce a DNA Profiling Bill in the winter session of Parliament. Once it becomes a law, the bill will grant the authority to collect vast amount of sensitive DNA data of citizens even if they are “suspects” in a criminal case. The data will be held till the person is cleared by court…The bill has already raised the hackles of many groups working on privacy issues who are worried that if it becomes a law, it would empower the government to create intrusive databases.”

Moreover, there is the UID Project, which would cost approximately 45 thousand crores of Rupees. The Biometric card AADHAR containing the unique number will store all information of an individual and will have to be used in all purposes of life. Information pertaining to all individuals will be centrally maintained in a server. An “enter” will give all the details of an individual’s movements, sales and purchases, financial details, readings, medical bills etc. It will be an all-pervasive unique instrument of state vigilance on an individual for 24×7, 365 days. So the question once again, for whom will the Privacy Law be enacted?

The A P Shah committee was formed after the episode of the Tata- Radia tape leaks. Ratan Tata himself raised the question of Individual’s right to privacy. Members of different chambers of commerce also raised the issue of right to privacy. So the Government rushed to form the AP Shah Committee. This time Manmohan Singh himself is not at all ambiguous and clearly announced for whom the law is needed and for whom he is concerned. In the above-mentioned meeting of Information Officers, he clearly noted that industrialists should be kept out of RTI purview so that their individual privacy is not violated. One more indication was clearly there when he mentioned “frivolous and vexatious use of the act ” – he was referring the DLF-Vadra deals and it seems that he is willing to save people like son-in- law of the Nation, Robert Vadra, from public scrutiny. So, while 10 lakh applications were filed in a single year under RTI act last year, the men in power and those surrounding them are actively seeking a law of individual privacy. Similarly, civil society and rights activists also wish to have a privacy law to save the citizen’s every day life from continuous state intrusion. But how far they will be able to get the interests of the common people reflected in the new law is a million rupee question and to be seen in the near future.

[The writer is a Rights activist based in Kolkata]

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Notes

[1] Section 66 A of the IT Act says the following – A Punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc
Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,-
a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill will, persistently makes by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,
c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.
Explanation: For the purposes of this section, terms “Electronic mail” and “Electronic Mail Message” means a message or information created or transmitted or received on a computer, computer system, computer resource or communication device including attachments in text, image, audio, video and any other electronic record, which may be transmitted with the message.

1 Comment »

One Response to “People under surveillance, Privacy law for whom ?”

  1. firoz Says:
    March 6th, 2013 at 11:56 am

    the aadhaar-uid project must be opposed as it is an attempt by the government to turn a citizenry into marked criminal masses. its malevolence is enhanced by the unaccountable and contractual private elements to which it has been outsourced. it destroys our right to anonymity and there is no turning back once such invasive and dehumanising programmes are initiated. can and should it be challenged in the courts?

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