x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

India ramps up surveillance with ability to tap emails and phone calls at will

Ability to to tap into phone calls and emails without oversight by courts or parliament alarms privacy and civil-liberty campaigners.

Indian security agencies and even income tax officials will have the ability to tap directly into emails and phone calls without oversight by courts or parliament.
Indian security agencies and even income tax officials will have the ability to tap directly into emails and phone calls without oversight by courts or parliament.

NEW DELHI // India has launched a wide-ranging surveillance programme that will give authorities the ability to tap directly into e-mails and phone calls without oversight by courts or parliament.

The nine government agencies that can listen in range from security forces to income tax officials.

The government said the expanded surveillance would safeguard national security but it has alarmed privacy campaigners at a time when reports of digital snooping by the US have sparked anger.

"If India doesn't want to look like an authoritarian regime, it needs to be transparent about who will be authorized to collect data, what data will be collected, how it will be used and how the right to privacy will be protected," said Cynthia Wong, an internet researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York.

India's Central Monitoring System (CMS) was announced in 2011 but there was no public debate and the government said little about how it would work or how it would ensure it was not abused.

The launch of the system began in April, state by state, officials said. When fully implemented, it will be able to target India's 900 million landline and mobile-phone subscribers plus 120 million internet users.

Indian officials said making details of the project public would limit its effectiveness.

"Security of the country is very important," said a senior telecommunications ministry official involved in setting up the project. "All countries have these surveillance programmes. You can see terrorists getting caught, you see crimes being stopped. You need surveillance. This is to protect you and your country."

The system will allow the government to listen to and tape telephone conversations, read e-mails and text messages, monitor posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks and track searches on Google, according to two officials involved in setting up the programme, human rights activists and cyber experts.

Last year, India sent 4,750 requests to Google for user data, the highest number in the world after the United States.

Now, security agencies will no longer need to seek a court order for surveillance or rely, as they do now, on internet or telephone companies to provide the data.

Government intercept data servers are being installed on the premises of private telecommunications firms. These will allow the government to tap into communications at will without telling the service providers.

The top bureaucrat in the federal interior ministry and his state-level deputies will have the power to approve requests for surveillance of specific phone numbers, e-mails or social-media accounts.

While it is not unusual for governments to instal equipment at telecommunication companies and service providers, they are usually required to submit warrants or be subject to other forms of independent oversight.

"Bypassing courts is really very dangerous and can be easily misused," said Pawan Sinha, who lectures on human rights at Delhi University. In Europe and in the US, security agencies need court approval or had to function with legal oversight, he added.

The senior telecommunications ministry official dismissed the claims that CMS could be abused.

"The home secretary has to have some substantial intelligence input to approve any kind of call tapping or call monitoring. He is not going to randomly decide to tape anybody's phone calls," he said.

"If the government reads your emails, or taps your phone, that will be done for a good reason. It is not invading your privacy, it is protecting you and your country."

The government has arrested people in the past for critical social media posts, although there have been no prosecutions.

In 2010, India's Outlook news magazine accused intelligence officials of tapping telephone calls of several politicians, including a government minister. The accusations were never proven.

"The many abuses of phone tapping make clear that that is not a good way to organise the system of checks and balances," said Anja Kovacs, a fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society in New Delhi.

"When similar rules are used for even more extensive monitoring and surveillance, as seems to be the case with CMS, the dangers of abuse and their implications for individuals are even bigger."

An interior ministry spokesman, said he did not have details of CMS and could not comment on privacy concerns. A spokeswoman for the telecommunications ministry, which will oversee CMS, did not respond to questions.