India's Rs 400-crore Central Monitoring System (CMS) that catapulted it to global headlines recently, has earned it the ire of human rights activists.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has written that with the installation of the CMS, the Indian government should put in place laws that ensure “increased surveillance of phones and the Internet does not undermine rights to privacy and free expression”.
The system that the government started rolling out in April this year, lets it access all communication in the country – online activities, phone calls, SMSes, social media conversations and even the geographical location of individuals. Using the Central Monitoring System, officials with the National Investigation Agency or tax officials will have access to “every byte of communication”.
Will it affect individual privacy? (Image credit: Getty Images)
It had been reported in the past too, that while the system could play a big role in ensuring better security in the country, it was already giving sleepless nights to those championing the cause of privacy and Internet freedom in the country.
Never before in the history of the Internet has the topic of Internet surveillance been more discussed, than it is now. According to HRW, activists in the country are worried that the new system will come in the way of their free will to express their opinions and share information. “India has a poor record of protecting free expression on the Internet,” the note says, citing recent instances in the country wherein, authorities cited the Information Technology Act to reprimand people for posting comments on social media that were anti government.
Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher, says, “The Indian government’s centralized monitoring is chilling, given its reckless and irresponsible use of the sedition and Internet laws. New surveillance capabilities have been used around the world to target critics, journalists, and human rights activists.” It notes that since the development of the CMS did not happen with the approval of the parliament, the government should conduct a full public debate about how the system ought to be used, before moving ahead with it.
Wong stressed that the Indian government needs to make necessary changes to the IT Act. “The authorities should amend the existing Information Technology Act and rules to protect free speech and expression, and be fully transparent about any surveillance system that might chill people’s willingness to share opinions and information,” she said.