India can’t become a surveillance state
It has made the apex court invoke Big Brother. The Supreme Court on Friday issued notice to the centre over its decision to establish a social media communication hub (SMCH) under the ministry of information and broadcasting for surveillance on social media. Hearing a public interest litigation that has sought a quashing of the order for establishment of such a hub, a bench comprising Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud, said: “If the government starts tapping WhatsApp messages, we will be moving towards becoming a surveillance state.”
The SC has good reason to be concerned. In April, the ministry had issued a tender requesting proposals to provide software, service and support for the function, operation and maintenance of the social media communication hub. According to the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, the scope of work of the tender says it requires “a technology platform to collect digital chatter from all social media platforms as well as digital platforms”. In a portion of the tender titled “predictive analysis”, perceived by its detractors as content manipulation, the purpose of such an exercise is stated as: “How could the public perception be moulded in positive manner for the country, how could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses…”
Although the proposal is yet to be green-lighted, critics are questioning the need for the State to establish a command centre to monitor the social media activity of its citizens. It can work as a tool of blanket surveillance. According to the tender, 716 social media executives spread across each of India’s 716 districts will prepare analyses to be sent to the command centre every day. The creation of such a hub impinges on the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and goes against the spirit of the nine-Judge verdict of the Supreme Court in 2017 restating the fundamental right to privacy. Surveillance can have a chilling effect on free speech, thereby hampering the freedom of expression as guaranteed in Article 19 (1) A. Also, the act of being constantly under watch by a Big Brother State can compel people to modulate their behaviour to conform to what the State expects of them. This impinges on the right to life and personal liberty in Article 21. If it goes ahead, the system could elicit comparisons with China’s censorship platform and the American National Security Agency’s infamous snooping tool called PRISM.
As likely, in the process of monitoring social media accounts of individuals, if the SMCH indeed collects personal data, it is likely to raise privacy questions. This has become contentious in the aftermath of a controversy about data privacy sparked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the introduction of the European general data protection regulation. In the absence of similar safeguards, with a strong data privacy regime yet to kick off in India, the chances of its misuse remain high.