Government Working on Privacy Legislation?

We in India had the General Election a few months ago. Having collectively elected a new government, one of the very first things I did was check out about our new Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi.

Mr. Narendra Modi, the present Prime Minister of India.

In the process of doing so, I had to visit two websites: the personal blog of Mr. Modi, and the official website of the Office of the Prime Minister.

For some reason, I had in mind some issues about privacy protection laws in India.

Well, before I proceed further, let me bring you up to date with the current situation in India with regards to privacy protection and the associated legal framework.

In one word, nothing like that exists! It may seem alarming, and sure it does feel very alarming to me.

The Central Government is planning on setting up an integrated intelligence gathering system, known as the Central Monitoring System (CMS). Currently, Indian service providers are ordered by the government to reveal data for intelligence. Once the CMS come into existence, the network will be voluntarily connected to all the communication networks of the country, much like it is with the intelligence apparatus of the USA.

So, the agencies entrusted with access to the CMS can snoop on any type of data routed through the communication networks of the country, of course, presumably without a court warrant.

The following agencies have apparently been given access to the CMS:

  • Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Indian equivalent of the FBI.
  • The Enforcement Directorate (ED), a central agency tasked with investigating money laundering and financial cases.
  • The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), which collects intelligence on activities associated with narcotics.
  • National Intelligence Bureau (NIB), the internal spy agency of India.
  • Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), the external spy agency of India.
  • National Investigation Agency (NIA), the central agency tasked with investigating and deterring insurgency.
  • The Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), given access to to apparently fight tax evasion.
  • Delhi Police, the police force of India’s national capital.

Of course, in the absence of privacy protection laws, giving such a plethora of agencies unrestricted access to the country communication networks is of course open to abuse. Abuse is not unheard of. Like some of the NSA operators misused their intelligence apparatus to snoop on their girlfriends’ communications with other mates, as recently revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian.

An image of Edward Snowden, who shocked the world last year with his revelations of mass spying on people by the US Government and its partners.  Image Credit: The Guardian

Leaving things open for abuse will make you abuse it. Suppose you go online find information to complete a school project. Of course, at some point of time, you will log into WordPress, or check your email and notifications, although you are ethically expected not to do it. Take such a view with reference to intelligence agencies.

The government has so far been very secretive about the protection safeguards built into the CMS, and in fact the whole business of the CMS, which is believed to have already come into operation in 2014.

Snooping now is as easy as one of these agencies entering the details of the target, either a group or an individual, and all the information they want would be automatically processed by the CMS servers and delivered in front of them from the country’s communication networks.

Having a privacy protection mechanism would at least ensure that the privacy of individuals is not violated in the name of intelligence gathering. 

This was precisely my concern. After the discovered the Interact with Hon’ble PM, I thought its time to make my mind known.

Anyone can write suggestions to the PMO for that matter, via this section of the website of the Office of the Prime Minister. That’s what I did.

It was quite some time ago (I filed it on June 7, 2014) and I had the issue had completely gone out of my mind. Until I received an email in reference to the suggestion that I had filed.

A screenshot of the email that I received.

I’m sorry I can’t give you the excerpt of the text I sent to the PMO, since I hadn’t bothered to note down a copy for myself.

I was informed that the Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT), Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions is working of a privacy legislation.

Honestly, at the beginning I couldn’t believe what I saw. Is the government really working on putting forward a privacy legislation? That would seriously be revolutionary. 

“It is requested that you may approach DOPT in this regard.” That was what was suggested in the ping-back to me.

That’s precisely what I’ve done. Just in case you are interested (which I know most of you are not), here’s a full excerpt of the same.

Mr. Ravinder Singh
Media & Communications,
Department of Personnel & Training,
Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions,
Govt. of India

Dear Sir,

I had sent a suggestion to the Office of the Prime Minister earlier last month, by utilizing the Interact with Hon’ble PM on the website of the PMO. Recently, I have received an acknowledgement from an officer with reference to the same.

Based on the aforementioned communication, I understand that DOPT is working on a privacy legislation. I was suggested to contact your department in the regard, to be informed about the same. I understand that it may not be possible to reveal much about this proposed legislation, since it is currently an internal government matter.

I believe that in light of the current situation in India, a privacy legislation is the need of the hour in interest of the public. Therefore, it would really be very kind of you if you could inform me of the fundamental points and principles of the proposed privacy legislation, just enough for me to be educated about the fundamental background of the same.

I thank you in advance, sincerely expecting a positive development from your side. If unfortunately I cannot be provided with the requested information due to various reasons, then may you please be so kind as to send me an acknowledgement of the same.

Yours Truly,
Sagnik Sarkar

Let’s wait and see whether I get a reply. I don’t mind telling you, I would be the most happy to get a positive acknowledgement. It remains to be seen when such a Bill would be tabled in Parliament. Only then can be think of it being passed by both Houses of Parliament, and subsequently be ratified by the President into law.

Your thoughts matter.

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