No blanket permission given to any agency on surveillance: Centre

Affidavit filed by Home Minister in Delhi High Court says there is no need for any new oversight body to review interception and monitoring orders

The Centre on Friday denied granting blanket permission to any government agency for interception or monitoring of any messages or information under its surveillance programmes such as Centralized Monitoring System (CMS), Network Traffic Analysis (NETRA) and National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID).

“There is no blanket permission to any agency for interception or monitoring or decryption; and permission from the competent authority (Union Home Secretary) is required, as per due process of law and rules in each case,” read an affidavit filed by the Home Ministry before the Delhi High Court.

The affidavit came in response to a petition seeking to constitute a permanent independent oversight body comprising of judicial and parliamentary representatives, for reviewing lawful interception and monitoring orders or warrants under the provisions of the Indian Telegraph Act and the Information Technology Act.

The Ministry, however, opposed the plea saying that “the existing safeguards of oversight by a high-level committee chaired by Cabinet Secretary at the Central level and chaired by Chief Secretary at the State level, are adequate and provide effective supervision”.

It stated that “grave threats to the country from terrorism, radicalisation, cross-border terrorism, cybercrime, organised crime, drug cartels cannot be understated or ignored and a strong and robust mechanism for timely and speedy collection of actionable intelligence including digital intelligence, is imperative to counter threats to national security”.

State interest

The Ministry termed it “undeniably legitimate State interest” for which the “requests for lawful interception monitoring must be dealt with by the executive authority to maintain speed and promptitude in taking decisions”.

Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Chetan Sharma, appearing for the Home Ministry, also pointed out that the joint plea by NGOs Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) and Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) has given no specific instances of violations of privacy and it also does not refer to the class of persons aggrieved by these systems.

The Home Ministry further stated that though the right to privacy is held to be a sacred fundamental right, the veil of privacy can be lifted for legitimate State interest namely in the interest of sovereignty or integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, and friendly relations with foreign States.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGOs, argued that since all kind of personal information, including travel itinerary, purchases, bank transactions and other data was being intercepted apart from phone calls, there was a need for a new set of regulations for monitoring such surveillance.

The pleas stated that the collection and aggregation of metadata of an individual’s various transactions including communication, financial and travel information would result in a real-time profiling of the entire population.

“There is no law governing such profiling and the entire population is at the mercy of the government,” the pleas said. Additionally, under the existing legal framework, there is an insufficient oversight mechanism to authorise and review the interception and monitoring orders issued by the state agencies.

It contended that in India communications surveillance is currently permitted on a wide variety of broadly worded grounds.

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