Government’s surveillance order key to national security: MHA officials
A recent Union government order authorising 10 central agencies to access “any information” on computers within the country is crucial for national security and there are adequate safeguards against its misuse, officials in the ministry of home affairs said, citing statements made by former minister P Chidambaram to Parliament and similar legislation in western countries.
The claims come at a time when the opposition has accused the government of trying to create a “police state” by issuing the December 20 order, which was also challenged in the Supreme Court earlier this week for being “illegal, unconstitutional and ultra vires to the law”.
“A needless controversy has been generated... Actually, the government order will ensure prevention of unauthorised interception or monitoring by agencies not mentioned in the order or by unscrupulous ISPs,” an official of the ministry said, asking not to be named since he was not authorised to speak to the media regarding the matter.
The order must be seen in the context of Section 69 of the IT Act, which sets out specific reasons under which interception can be approved, the official added. “Each case of monitoring or interception requires prior approval of home secretary and approval can be given only for purposes mentioned in Section 69”. Cases that could threaten sovereignty and integrity of India, public order, diplomatic relations or investigation of any offence are among those that can warrant interception or monitoring of communication.
On Thursday, Union home secretary Rajiv Gauba issued a statutory order authorising 10 “security and intelligence” agencies to lawfully “intercept, monitor and decrypt” information through a “computer resource”. The agencies included the Intelligence Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (for IT Department), Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, the Research and Analysis Wing and Delhi Police commissioner.
On Friday, the day after the order, Congress president Rahul Gandhi targeted the Prime Minister, saying: “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.”
The home ministry official quoted above said some of the reasons why such legal provisions were crucial were in fact elaborated by Chidambaram during a debate in Rajya Sabha on April 29, 2010.
“Mr Chidambaram admitted that interception was being done by his government and it was necessary to do so for intelligence collection in the interest of national security. He also advocated use of sophisticated technology for interceptions,” he said, adding that internal government reports indicated the number of interceptions has reduced substantially due to stricter scrutiny by the home ministry under the current government.
The official listed United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia as countries that have similar provisions enabling law enforcement agencies to seek access to data or communications under certain circumstances.
Legal and cyber security experts said that while the December 20 order does not create anything new, it underscores the need for a debate on the IT Act provisions enabling surveillance in such manner, especially in light of the 2017 Supreme Court order that upheld the right to privacy as a fundamental right. “The powers under the ambit of section 69 itself need to be re-examined following the privacy judgment as it can have a detrimental impact on personal privacy and data privacy,” said cyber law expert Pavan Duggal.