Investigative agencies will now be equipped with sweeping powers to intercept and track data on any computer after a new home ministry order released on Thursday.
10 central agencies now have powers of “interception, monitoring, and decryption of any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer,” as per the order signed by Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba.
Earlier, only the home ministry had power to scan calls and emails of people. The new order gives that power to the Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, CBI, National Investigation Agency, Cabinet Secretariat (Research and Analysis Wing), Directorate of Signal Intelligence (in Jammu and Kashmir, North-East and Assam only), and the Delhi Police Commissioner.
The home ministry has authorised the agencies to intercept information under 69 (1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The act states that the central government can direct any agency after it is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient to do so in the “interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence”.
However, it seems that this section was already included in the IT Act through an amendment in 2008, which was brought about by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.
The new notification does not authorise agencies to snoop on any computer they wish. A separate authorisation by the competent authority, in this case the Union Home Ministry, will be required for any attempt to access a computer in a particular case.
The ministry, however, has not mentioned why it has granted permission only to central agencies. Terrorism-related probes are also conducted by state anti-terrorism squads, but the gazette notification does not give any state police force, except the Delhi Police, the power to intercept data.
What is the order?
“For the first time, powers of scanning data at rest have been given to various agencies. Earlier, only data in motion could be intercepted. But now data revived, stored and generated can also be intercepted as powers of seizure have been given,” a senior bureaucrat told NDTV.
This means that the aforementioned agencies now have the power to not just trace calls or emails, but any data found on a computer. The agencies will also have power to seize devices.
“Intelligence Bureau (IB) has no powers of seizure—they operate in collaboration with state police forces. Now it seems to have changed with the new notification,” the bureaucrat said.
According to the notification, the subscriber or service provider or any person in-charge of the computer resource is bound to extend all facilities and technical help to the agencies if they ask for data. If an entity fails to do so, they could face seven years in jail and a fine.
How will it work?
A senior official from the Intelligence Bureau explained to News18 how the new order will work.
The officer said, “There will be two levels of oversight before such interception is done by agencies. Like phone-tapping, we will have to inform and seek permission from the Union home secretary.
Home secretary’s permission will also be reviewed by Cabinet Secretary. It is not that we are seeking to intercept each and every computer. We have to justify it under the ambit of national security.”
Government respects privacy but won’t compromise on national security: IT minister
Clarifying its order, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said: “This notification does not confer any new powers. Adequate safeguards are provided in the IT Act 2000. Similar provisions and procedures already existed in the Telegraph Act along with identical safeguards.”
The MHA said that the present notification is analogous to the authorisation issued under the Telegraph Act. It added that the entire process is also subject to a ‘robust review mechanism as in the case of Telegraph Act’.
The MHA later also issued a clarification on the issue and emphasised that interception will only be done after an approval is received from the home secretary.
“Even in case of a particular individual, the interception order will not be effective until approval by the home secretary,” IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said. “And in this case, the agencies will only intercept data after approval from the home secretary,” he added.
Prasad further said, “We respect people’s privacy. Our government respects democracy. But we will not compromise on national security,” as per a report in Firstpost.
The move received considerable backlash for its potential to breach the individual’s digital privacy. Congress President Rahul Gandhi, and other members of the opposition such as Asaduddin Owaisi and Mamata Banerjee, took to Twitter to criticize the order.
Converting India into a police state isn’t going to solve your problems, Modi Ji.
It’s only going to prove to over 1 billion Indians, what an insecure dictator you really are. https://t.co/KJhvQqwIV7— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) December 21, 2018
Telangana MP Asaduddin Owaisi criticised the order saying, “Modi has used a simple Government Order to permit our national agencies to snoop on our communications.”
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted as to why should “commoners” be affected under the guise of “National Security.”
Internet advocacy groups were also up in arms against the order. The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) noted that the order goes beyond tapping of telephones.
A source from an intelligence agency who is involved in his organisation’s snooping infrastructure welcomed the order, saying that such an order was needed to equip forces in cyber warfare, as the country’s economy drives along the e-way.
Surveillance in other countries
Reports from April 2018 stated that China was setting up a vast surveillance system that tracks every single one of its 1.4 billion citizens. China reportedly planned to use facial recognition to name and shame jaywalkers. Surveillance efforts would also include forcing people to download apps that can access all the photos on their smartphones.
China’s surveillance technology has witnessed a rise, and it comes as the state rolls out an enormous “social credit system“, wherein citizens will be ranked according to their behaviour, and rewards and punishments would be doled out as per their scores.
Media reports from 2015 stated that Pakistan was planning to build a sophisticated spying network that would rival the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) in its scope. Through the surveillance system, Pakistan planned to record phone calls and Internet data of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, according to a new report.
The report, which was published by UK-based firm Privacy International, said that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) attempted to tap into global Internet traffic through undersea cables. The report also mentioned that Pakistan was in talks with intermediary companies to buy spying toolkits from Chinese and Western firms for domestic surveillance.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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