Look, who’s watching

The reach of the surveillance programme in the US has alarmed privacy advocates everywhere. Thanks to increased media scrutiny, information on how Centralised Monitoring System (CMS), the system to monitor and intercept communication in India, is being set up.

According to media reports, CMS has successfully completed Proof of Concept (POC) testing in New Delhi and Haryana. It will now be tried out in Kerala, Karnataka and Kolkata, before spreading to rest of the country. It is equipped to keep a ‘real time’ watch on all the 900 million telephone subscribers and 160 million Internet users in the country. While it routinely monitors the ‘meta data’, the overall communication patterns, it can access all communication details of targeted numbers – call content, SMS and fax messages, web usage, even emails saved in draft folders.

CMS will reportedly not replace but combine with the existing 200-plus interception systems, set up by mobile operators, ISPs and international gateways. What India has is as sophisticated, real time and comprehensive surveillance as you can have anywhere in the world. If your number is targeted, everything you do will be on the government record.

Governments need this capability to thwart unlawful activity. But this is a technology prone to abuse if not adequately supervised. Surveillance in this country is a matter internal to bureaucracy; all you need is the nod of a designated senior officer and you are good to go. There is no information on how the authorisations will be determined in the CMS and what checks and balances have been instituted to ensure innocent people are not harmed. A decade ago intelligence sources had on record warned that Delhi police personnel were tapping phones to take sides in private disputes. There is a case for the judiciary to step in more proactively to balance the privacy of individuals with the security needs. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a PIL on the threat posed to Indian sovereignty by the US surveillance programme. Similarly, it needs to look into the functioning of the CMS to ensure adequate safeguards are put in place.


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