Computers under agencies' watch, many cry foul

The Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order giving 10 Central agencies to intercept, decrypt and monitor any and all form of information generated, stored or transmitted from any computer in India. Reuters file photo for representation only

Ten central investigation and intelligence agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau, RAW and CBI, will have sweeping powers to intercept, monitor and decrypt "any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer", according to a government order which immediately attracted the ire of the Opposition.

The Opposition said on Friday it was the ruling BJP's move to turn India into a "surveillance state", a day after the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued a gazette notification giving surveillance powers to the agencies.

The government countered the criticism saying the notification was issued in accordance with rules framed in 2009 and "in vogue" since then and that "no new powers" have been conferred on any of the agencies.

This notification will "ensure that the provisions of law relating to lawful interception or monitoring of computer resource are followed, and if any interception, monitoring or decryption is required for purposes specified in Section 69 of the IT Act, the same is done as per due process of law and approval of competent authority, i.e. Union Home Secretary", an official statement said.

It said the entire process is also subject to a robust review mechanism as in the case of the Telegraph Act. The MHA has not delegated its powers to any law enforcement or security agency, it said.

Besides the Intelligence Bureau, CBI and RAW, the other agencies allowed to intercept computers are: Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, National Investigation Agency, Directorate of Signal Intelligence (for service areas of Jammu & Kashmir, North-East and Assam only) and Commissioner of Delhi Police.

These security and intelligence agencies have been allowed "interception, monitoring and decryption of any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource".

As soon as the issue came up in public domain, the Opposition parties joined hands to strongly oppose the move, saying it was done ahead of the Lok Sabha elections to keep a tab on anti-BJP parties.

While National Conference leader Omar Abdullah sarcastically commented on Twitter "I feel safer already!", CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said, "Why is every Indian being treated like a criminal? This order by a govt wanting to snoop on every citizen is unconstitutional and in breach of the telephone tapping guidelines, the privacy judgement and the Aadhaar judgement."

In Parliament House, Congress, Samajwadi Party, AAP, RJD and SP leaders met reporters together to raise concerns over the issue. Warning that the move gives "unlimited powers" to these agencies, Congress deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma said, "This is a serious development. Through this order, the BJP is converting India into a surveillance state. The government has done it by stealth. We collectively oppose it."

Senior SP MP Ramgopal Yadav said it was "dictatorship" and the Narendra Modi government has come up with the move after the BJP's loss in three Hindi heartland states. "But let them remember they will be around only for four months now. They should not dig their own grave on their way out," he said.

Describing it as a "draconian move", Trinamool Congress MP Sukhendu Shekhar Roy claimed the Opposition leaders' phones are being tapped and the order was in violation of the right to privacy judgement by the Supreme Court. "Now, they have legalised all sort of tapping. To win elections, they are going to tap all Opposition leaders," he said.

AAP's Sanjay Singh said, "We have two spies in power. They want to peep into our bedrooms. They can lynch us anywhere. It is anti-democratic, unconstitutional. It goes against a person's privacy."

RJD MP Manoj K Jha said the BJP has converted India into an "Orwellian state" and that "a two-and-half (member) syndicate who is ruling right now. You are sitting in the departure lounge. After the elections, we will win."

The notification has invoked Section 69(1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, read with rule 4 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009.

The section allows the central or state government agencies to intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource.

As per this section, the government can direct any agency if it finds it necessary in the "interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to the above or for investigation of any offence".

 

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