Friday, September 24, 2021
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The secrets of surveillance in India

By Dr Ahmed Raza

The recent alleged incidence of digital surveillance by the Pegasus software again points out to the issues of violations of individual right to privacy and digital security. Snooping and surveillance always happen to be one of the strategic weapons for the government in order to deal with terrorist activities, internal rebellion, naxalities, uprising etc. Such administrative necessities for the digital surveillance or any other form of snooping always seems to be a plethora of controversies in India as due process of law is always ignored or it has appeared so far to be a politically motivated decision. The emergence of the ‘Pegasus’ led political controversy has appeared as a full of media sensation rather than fact based sensitization for our democracy as we are already witnessed of numbers of incidences of snooping, surveillance and spying which only could hit the headlines for a few days, and leaves a huge secret of surveillance in India. Unfortunately, the long awaited issue of the legal routes to surveillance for the purposes of national security is still remaining a gray area in our political system.

The controversy erupted in India with the publication of a media report exposing that there are more than 300 verified Indian mobile telephone numbers, including ministers, opposition leaders, journalists, the legal community, businessmen, government officials, scientists, rights activists and others which have been allegedly snooped by ‘Pegasus’ software, a spyware produced by the Israeli company ‘NSO Group’. Though, continuous denial of the government for any kind of involvement into the usages of ‘Pegasus’ software seems to be a political stand rather than a reality as sovereign power along-with a high prices costs are a pre-requisite condition for accessing the ‘Pegasus’ software as per the company policy. From these points of view, the ongoing controversies of snooping by ‘Pegasus’ need to be viewed seriously so as to decode the hidden agendas of the external forces if the government of India remains adamant of non-involvement of usages of the software.

Legal routes for surveillance in India

With the purposes of monitoring the suspicious roles of the persons who remain intact in unlawful activities including terrorism, naxalities, criminals etc, the Government of India takes recourse to the legal provisions provided under the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 and the Information Technology Act (IT) of 2000. However, none of the provisions allows the government to hack any person’s phone, as hacking of computer resources, including mobile phones and apps, is considered a criminal act under the IT Act. However, surveillance in itself—whether carried out under the provision of the law or without it—is a violation of the fundamental rights of citizens. Therefore, this article tries to explore two perspectives about surveillance; first, ‘whether or not to have a surveillance system’, and second, ‘how, when and what kind of monitoring’ is to be allowed in Indian democracy.

Whether or not to have a surveillance system?

Surveillance system for India becomes a mandatory apparatus on account of rising cyber-crimes, terrorist activities and other issues associated with national securities and sovereignty. At the same time, usages of digital surveillance by the government pose an immense threat to freedom of the press, the right to privacy and the due process of law as surveillance and transparency do not work together in democracy. Though, surveillance happens to be a hidden strategy for dealing with anti-social elements which may be justified legally in due course of time, but, could not be brought into public domain prior to achievement of the objectives of the surveillance. The ‘Pegasus’ led controversy amounts to be a unique case for India as victims of the surveillance include not only from oppositions parties but also from ruling governments, judiciary, independent medias, election commissions etc. The usages of Pegasus software for surveillance in India has appeared to be an issue of illegal surveillance by the private entity, remained engaged in transgression from outside the nation, which needs to be dealt apolitically and stringently as the largest democracy in the world cannot be at the mercy of a shady private company. Keeping the ongoing controversy of the alleged surveillance by the ‘Pegasus’ software in mind, the government must protect individuals and institutions of national importance by employing surveillance system judiciously, legally and rationally, so as to make sure that the unity of the nation and the integrity of the individuals stay safe and secure.

When and what kind of surveillance?

The issues of surveillance in India happen to be more political than administrative as every government is being accused of employing the surveillance model of governance with the purposes of monitoring the oppositions as well as anti-establishment views.  Surveillance model of governance in India is always legitimized as a monitoring and controlling on the part of an administrative action or necessaries for securities agencies. Although, when and what kind of monitoring for the nation still remains the most long awaited issues as law of the land relating to personal data protection of Indian citizens has failed to address the issue of surveillance, while providing broad exemptions for government officials. The two words ‘when’ and ‘what’ kind of surveillance in India don’t find the place in administrative dictionary, hence, large numbers of incidents of surveillance, snooping and spying kept on hitting the head-lines for a few of days, which not only poses a threat to our security, but also provides an ample opportunity to the external forces to indulge in our political affairs. It’s high time for the policy makers to ensure the digital sovereignty, right to privacy and national security by introducing a comprehensive a national plan for dealing with data protection and illegal surveillance.

In conclusion, surveillance in itself whether carried out under the provision of law or without-it is a violation of the fundamental rights of citizens as hacking of computer resources, including mobile phones and apps amounts to be a criminal act under the IT Act. At the same time, the emerging challenges to the national security including terrorist activities, naxalism etc compel the governments for usages of surveillance so as to ensure pro-active role and responsibilities towards preventing any illegal and unlawful activities. Hence, a balanced approach between surveillance and fundamental rights of the citizens become a mandatory obligation for the government.

(Author is Assistant Professor, MANUU, Hyderabad & Project Director (MRP ICSSR), political commentator, author and columnist. The views expressed are the personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at ahmedraza@manuu.edu.in)

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