India allows 10 government agencies to access citizens’ digital messages

Who’s got more data now?
Who’s got more data now?
Image: REUTERS/Stephen Lam
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The Indian government has expanded its surveillance powers.

The ministry of home affairs yesterday (Dec.20) authorised 10 national agencies to intercept, monitor, or decrypt any digital information.

All 10 agencies fall under the administrative control of the central government.

The government has justified the order under the Information Technology Act, which allows an agency to intercept, monitor, or decrypt any digital information if the government is:

satisfied that it is necessary or expedient to do 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 cognisable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence.

Under the Act, any individual or party which fails to assist the authorised agency can face imprisonment of up to seven years.

The Indian government has been in prolonged conversations with Facebook-owned WhatsApp to allow law enforcement agencies to trace messages on its platform, especially after reports emerged that lynch mobs in various parts of the country are being incited by rumours circulated on the app. WhatsApp has refused to allow traceability of messages, citing their end-to-end encryption.

But the wide-sweeping provisions of the Act, which were legislated in 2009, are now “arguably unconstitutional,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a New Delhi-based advocacy group.

“This order comes after the supreme court judgments on privacy and Aadhaar. The privacy judgment by itself now makes a stricter requirement of safeguards for any kind of acquisition of personal data, and this is then demonstrated in the Aadhaar judgment,” Gupta said.