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India sets up system to tap phone calls, e-mails

New Delhi,June 20, 2013, Reuters: 0:49 IST

Nine government agencies to access facilities

A man checks his mobile phone near a marketplace in New Delhi June 18, 2013. India has launched a wide-ranging surveillance programme that will give its security agencies and even income tax officials the ability to tap directly into e-mails and phone calls without oversight by courts or parliament, several sources said. Picture taken June 18. REUTERS
India has launched a wide-ranging surveillance programme that will give security agencies, including Income-Tax officials, the ability to tap directly into e-mails and phone calls without oversight by the courts or Parliament, sources said.

The expanded surveillance has alarmed privacy advocates at a time when allegations of massive US digital snooping beyond American shores have set off a global furore.
"If India doesn't want to look like an authoritarian regime, it needs to be transparent about who will be authorised to collect data, what data will be collected, how it will be used and how the right to privacy will be protected," said Cynthia Wong, an internet researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The government started to quietly roll the system out state by state in April this year, according to government officials. Eventually it will be able to target any of India's 900 million landline and mobile phone subscribers and 120 million internet users.

Officials said revealing details of the project would limit its effectiveness as an intelligence-gathering tool.

"Security of the country is very important. All countries have these surveillance programmes," said a senior Telecommunications Ministry official, defending the need for a system like the CMS.

The new system will allow the government to listen to and tape phone conversations, read e-mails and text messages, monitor posts on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and track searches on Google for selected targets. In 2012, India sent in 4,750 requests to Google Inc for user data, only second to the United States.

Government data-intercepting servers are being built on the premises of private telecommunications firms which will allow the government to tap into communications at will without telling the service providers, according to officials and public documents.
While it is usual for governments to have equipment at telecommunication companies and service providers, they are usually required to submit warrants or use other forms of independent oversight.

Minister of State for Information Technology Milind Deora said that the new data collection system would actually improve citizens' privacy because telecommunications companies would no longer be directly involved in the surveillance - only government officials would."The mobile company will have no knowledge about whose phone conversation is being intercepted", Deora told a Google Hangout, earlier this month.

"If at all the government reads your e-mails, or taps your phone, that will be done for a good reason. It is not invading your privacy, it is protecting you and your country," he said.

"Bypassing courts is really very dangerous and can be easily misused," said Pawan Sinha, who teaches human rights at Delhi University. In most countries in Europe and in the United States, security agencies were obliged to seek court approval or had to function with legal oversight, he said.

Nine government agencies will be authorised to make intercept requests, including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India's elite policy agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the domestic spy agency, and the income tax department.

India does not have a formal privacy law and the new surveillance system will operate under the Indian Telegraph Act - a law formulated by the British in 1885 - which gives the government freedom to monitor private conversations.

The government has escalated efforts to monitor the activities of militant groups since a Pakistan-based militant squad, Lashkar-e-Toiba, rampaged through Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people. Monitoring of telephones and the internet are part of the surveillance.

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