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Keep an eye on the circuit

Any centralised intelligence-sharing system should have a set of checks and balances.

india Updated: Jul 15, 2011 22:33 IST

Every democratic society faces a trade-off between liberty and security. North Korea has never faced terrorist attacks but its people are deprived of all but the most trivial forms of individual choice. Which is why any liberal democracy, no matter what threat it may face, should be careful when it curtails freedoms and concentrates authority when trying to defend against such dangers. The history of war and terrorism is replete with laws and regulations passed by societies to defend themselves that have proven to be double-edged swords. Many are eventually revoked, but not before being responsible for more abuse than protection.

The terrible triple bombing in Mumbai has again raised demands for a number of counterterrorism measures proposed after the earlier 26/11 terrorist attack be implemented. The most contentious of these is the so-called National Intelligence Grid, better known as Natgrid. On the face of it, Natgrid makes sense. It will centralise dozens of databases that exist in the country including banking information, travel data and so on. This will then be made available on tap to India’s 11 intelligence agencies who can trawl it for suspicious patterns of behaviour and suspect transactions, the type of software-driven data scrutiny increasingly used to predict terrorism. Critics argue this flies in the face of the Constitution’s and the Supreme Court’s strictures on privacy. It also raises the possibility of a government agency or even a minister using this information for blackmail or some other form of personal gain. These criticisms are not without basis. Natgrid’s purpose is not a matter of concern. But how it will be controlled and how it will be used deserve much more public debate than has taken place so far. A similar structure in Britain has already run afoul of the courts. Many European countries have simply declined to go down that path, concluding the costs to their democratic polity outweigh the theoretical gains on the security side. The United States does allow its security agencies to mine private databases. Crucially, however, it requires that such requests be filtered through a special tribunal of former judges.

Due process in Indian security is a British Raj inheritance. Decisions, for example, on wiretapping are left to a few bureaucrats and ministers. There is no legislative or judicial supervision. This system needs checks and balances as India’s security demands became more complex. Independent oversight at the apex of Natgrid , perhaps in the form of a US-style tribunal, is one way to ensure terrorism does not succeed in persuading the Indian State to undermine the nation it is seeking to protect.