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NSA's snooping: India should assume leading role in cyber law forums

India should resume its role of being a leading player in discussions on global Internet governance. It cannot watch idly when it is excluded from forums where rules regarding Internet are negotiated and formulated. Hardeep S Puri writes.

ht view Updated: Feb 14, 2014 02:13 IST

Protection of sensitive classified information and privileged communications between senior government functionaries is an imperative of national security.

Most recent disclosures by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States was keeping a close tab on conversations within other governments in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate conference and during the conference itself in December 2009 only confirm what was widely known.

Most certainly, the close consultations between India and China and coordinations with other BRICS countries Brazil, Russia and South Africa were monitored.

The then minister of environment has expressed anger at the disclosures and at the fact that India was being spied upon during the Copenhagen meeting, our strategic partnership with the US notwithstanding.

States employ various tactics to persuade others to their points of view, inducements, in varying degrees, intimidation, threats, isolating the more recalcitrant ones, dividing the opposition, baits of financial assistance and so on. The more powerful also try and approach leaders of the other side directly to bypass officials and subject-specialists involved in negotiations. The history of climate change negotiations over the past two decades is replete with hundreds of such instances.

Without compromising obligations under the Official Secrets Act, this writer can state that he requested the government to strengthen our communication systems and take the required counter-measures during India’s tenure on the United Nations Security Council in 2011-12. Communications among our senior leaders and top officials in the government are constantly monitored by outside agencies. Are we to believe that our counter-intelligence measures are so strong that such contingencies should be dismissed out of hand? The answer to our being snooped on cannot be that we have initiated action for snooping on our citizen ourselves.

Are we willing to live with the current state of affairs where any external agency with the requisite technological capability can and should have a free run? If not, has the government concluded agreements with other governments for intelligence-sharing and collaboration to such a degree that their agencies can snoop on our political leaders and top officials in an unrestricted manner at any time of their choosing without any consequences?

The first set of Snowden’s disclosures came in June 2013. A decade prior to that, during the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Geneva in 2003, the then minister of information technology had underlined the imperative of placing critical Internet resources under a multilateral framework. The WSIS had subsequently underscored the importance of making the global governance of the Internet truly “multilateral, transparent and democratic”.

By invoking slogans of multi-stakeholderism, undermining of freedom of expression and campaigning against content-control, those bent on preserving the current model of unilateral control have managed, for more than a decade, to thwart attempts to bring the Internet under a multilateral, transparent and democratic regime. India’s proposal for placing discussions on international public policy aspects of global Internet governance under the United Nations’ (UN) auspices, made in 2011, was similarly shouted down by the same forces.

One can understand the attitude of a country participating in the ‘Five Eyes’ programme of collaboration in intelligence gathering and sharing being compelled to keep a studied silence when something like the Snowden disclosures erupts. If one is both a participant and a beneficiary, it would be hard to condemn such external surveillance measures. Absent any evidence, it would be difficult to presume that India is in such a happy situation. Even allies and Nato partners have condemned snooping of their leaders. Negotiations between the US and the European Union with regard to data protection and data security have been affected severely.

There has been no statement from the Indian government on how it intends to deal with these questions. Even without revealing any State secrets, it should be possible to assuage concerns regarding surveillance by the US-NSA of our political leaders and senior officials by providing general information regarding safeguards put in place. A constant diet of platitudes about cooperation and collaboration in dealing with cyber-crime and cyber-security will not wash.

An interesting story about an international conference, held not too long ago, is instructive. A powerful country with large defensive interests had targeted among others a fellow-democracy with large offensive interests. The former had managed to influence the latter’s political leader involved in the negotiations. At crucial moments, the former would send the latter suggestions via text messages on the mobile phone.

The coordination between the two reached such a high degree of success that, at one of the most crucial moments in the final round of negotiations, when all those present around the table were searching for ways to strike a compromise, the political leader helpfully suggested a compromise which had arrived at via an SMS. The leader of the other side could not wait, till the fellow-democrat completed his intervention: being more powerful, he expressed joy at the suggestion, complimented the other and accepted the suggestion on behalf of all the participants!

India should resume its role of being a leading player in discussions on global Internet governance. It cannot watch idly when it is excluded from forums where rules regarding Internet are negotiated and formulated.

India needs to develop a plan to discuss the important facets of this question bilaterally with major European partners, in addition to major fellow developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa, apart from playing a proactive role in the UN forums concerned. That is the only realistic way in which India can hope to play its legitimate role in this critical arena with significant implications for our technological future and national security.

Hardeep S Puri is a retired diplomat. He recently joined the BJP
The views expressed by the author are personal