Friday, November 22, 2013

Right to Privacy, Snooping, Electronic Surveillance and Government of India (GoI)

"On November 15, a pair of investigative portals released a set of audio transcripts depicting an extraordinarily invasive and scrupulous surveillance of a young woman by the Gujarat Police." - The Hindu (Nov 22)

"Private detectives forge relations with policemen and unsuspecting people in telecom companies, as they have access to call data... Fresh arrests in a case relating to 'BJP' leader Arun Jaitley's call records being compromised have re-instilled fears on the snooping front... how private detectives were increasingly prying on personal details." - Business Standard (Nov 16)

We Indians generally don't care much about privacy. You can meet a person on a train and extract his family details in first 10 minutes itself. We often hesitate to say no... We often hesitate to say 'Sorry, its personal'.

An old friend once told me how much shocked he was, when heard about his salary details (break down structure) from future in-laws. This was not an isolated incident. Many times I got calls from marketing representatives on business phones, which I never shared. Spamming is an ever increasing problem.

These two incidents plus Radia tapes are shedding lights to dark areas of snooping into personal data, and compromising the right to privacy. Radia tapes revealed many things; but the point is, government was recording the conversation - according to some imaginary objectives. Worst part is, someone - who has access to these records – was ready to disclose this information to public. This raises new questions on how safe your private details are in government's hand.

Now I am really worried about the new initiatives from GoI. NatGrid, Aadhar etc may help government to manage and verify information. The million dollar question is, how secure this data with government? Access to NatGrid, Aadhar gives unprecedented privilege in the hands of many individuals in government. Will they live up to the expectation?

What you think about Aadhar id? Is it safe to reveal that id to someone else? If not, then what about our ids moving here and there in the files of gas agencies, banks, MGNREGA officials etc? Probably never in the history of India, any bureaucrat got the control such highly specific information. Here we are not talking about a name, address or phone number but fingerprints, iris images, unique ids etc.

Do you think this information is safe in government hands? Especially when,

"Investigations into Jaitley case revealed a group of private detectors had connived with police officers of the rank of assistant sub-inspectors, head constables and constable in the office of the ACP. These rogue policemen illegally sent mails from the ACP's office to service providers, seeking call details of politicians, businessmen and journalists. The scam was uncovered after one of the eight telecom service providers turned suspicious and decided to verify with the ACP concerned. So far, four policemen and a couple of private detectives have been arrested in the case."

We Indians need to think more about our privacy. Think twice before giving all your information in social networks. Think thrice before handing over PAN cards, Passport etc to someone else.

In a country which is much worried about terror networks and other internal and external agencies working 24*7 to destabilize the country, electronic surveillance is a good weapon in the hands of law and order officials. However in the absence of a strong and robust legal framework, these data may not be in the safe hands.


I think executive, legislatures and judiciary need to take a look into below mentioned points,

1. All snooping and surveillance activities should be in accordance with a new law passed by legislature not through an executive order.

2. Terms like public order, national security, destabilizing the country, public safety, defence of India rules etc should be defined clearly.

3. Any snooping activities should be authorised at very high level officials.

4. Any private information acquired using electronic surveillance and (or) not followed the due process of law and (or) leaked to public domain should be inadmissible as evidence in courts.

5. Any such individual, or government official leaking telephone calls and other private information to general public or a group should be prosecuted (exception can be given, if leaking is under extraordinary circumstances and in the best interests of nation).

6. Colonial era laws - like Indian Telegraph Act etc - which served the purpose of colonial overloads should be replaced immediately.

7. Every citizen should have the right to privacy. Until and unless it serves the best interests of the nation (as per the due process established by law), no citizen of India be subjected to electronic surveillance.

8. Government machinery should not be misused for making private and commercial gains.

9. People who have access to order surveillance and power to access very confidential information should also be responsible for the protection of information so acquired.

10. All surveillance requests should be authorized by a screening committee which includes at least a person each from judiciary and Ministry of Law.

I hope GoI will look in to recent incidents and come with a robust framework.



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