EDITORIAL | Snooping order, threat to democracy

The Union Home Ministry issued an order last week that authorises 10 intelligence, tax and law enforcement agencies to “intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer” in the country. Understandably, it has triggered heated debate over its impact on a citizen’s right to privacy. Opposition political parties have slammed the order, describing it as “draconian” and “extremely dangerous,” and making India a “surveillance state.” The Narendra Modi government has said that the order is in the interest of national security as it enables agencies to keep an eye on terrorists and their illegal activities. Moreover, it has pointed out that the order’s origins lie in amendments made a decade ago to the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000. Thus, it has responded to criticism by simply deflecting the blame to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The Modi government is partially right. The amendment to the IT Act was done during UPA rule. Indeed, it was passed unanimously in both Houses of Parliament and without any discussion, which means that parties across the board supported the amendment to the IT Act in toto. Thus, no political party can escape responsibility for their callous disregard of the right to privacy of Indian citizens.

That said, the Modi government’s order provides reason for alarm. Under the 2009 rules, a central agency had to seek permission of the home secretary on a case-to-case basis. It had to provide detailed reasons for its request and in writing. The home secretary was free to permit or deny the agency permission for surveillance. That has now changed. The new order gives unfettered discretion to the 10 agencies. It is sweeping in scope. If, in the past, it was only the Home Ministry which could scan calls and emails of people, now 10 agencies can do so. In addition to calls and emails, these agencies have the power now to intercept data on a computer and also seize the devices. This sweeping mandate to snoop is all the more worrying given the Modi government’s authoritarian and intolerant outlook. It has labelled its detractors as anti-nationals and traitors, even as threats to national security. Every one of its critics, indeed every Indian citizen is vulnerable to snooping. Worse, access to computers would enable authorities to manipulate collected data, even frame critics and political opponents.

The recent order allowing snooping at an unprecedented level goes against the 2017 Supreme Court ruling upholding the right to privacy as a fundamental right. The mandating of sweeping powers to a large number of agencies if indiscriminately used and not subjected to institutional oversight is a threat to our democracy.

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EDITORIAL | Snooping order, threat to democracy

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