In the latest ‘Enemies of the internet’ report by media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF, Reporters Without Borders), security agencies at the service of democratically elected governments are among the worst online spies in the world. India, the world’s largest democracy, has been included in the list of countries with the worst methods of snooping, putting them on the same level as offenders in Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.
The RSF named the US National Security Agency (NSA), Britain’s GCHQ and the Centre for Development Telematics (C-DoT) in India as having “hacked into the very heart of the internet” and turned a collective resource “into a weapon in the service of special interests” that flout the “freedom of information, freedom of expression and the right to privacy.”
Post the revelation by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden on how the US is spying on its citizens and the rest of the world through its PRISM program, snooping in the name of national security has raised major concerns on freedom of expression all over the world.
The RSF report stated that profit-driven spyware firms often linked up with government agents who are in search of the newest ways to observe and control the internet. Governments keen to impose censorship also help one another. Iran has asked China to help it develop a local version of the electronic Great Wall that cuts off billions of Chinese from the internet as seen by the rest of the world.
To stop this proliferation of snooping, RSF said a whole new legal framework to govern surveillance was “essential” with states needing to embrace transparency regarding the methods being used.
The RSF report indeed confirms the Indian government’s stand on spying on its citizens. In fact, India is asking for help from US to help decrypt conversations over social messaging apps.
In December 2013, the Indian government’s telecom technology arm, Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) began deploying a new Internet spy system called Netra. The decision was discussed by an apex inter-ministerial group headed by DoT’s member (technology) and included top officials of the Cabinet Secretariat, home ministry, Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO), Centre for Artificial Intelligence & Robotics (CAIR), Intelligence Bureau, C-DoT and Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In).
An upgrade to its internet surveillance system, Netra is enabled to detect words like ‘attack’, ‘bomb’, ‘blast’ or ‘kill’ from reams of tweets, status updates, emails, instant messaging transcripts, internet calls, blogs and forums. The system will have the capability of capturing any dubious voice traffic passing through software such as Skype or Google Talk.
Earlier in 2012, the Indian government had defended the PRISM program by US and also decided to go ahead with its own plans to set up a ‘Central Monitoring System’ (CMS) on the lines of PRISM. The Rs. 400 crore CMS system that started functioning in 2013 enabled the government to monitor all phone and internet communications in the country.
CMS provides state bodies like the National Investigation Agency (NIA), centralised access to the country’s telecom network and facilitate direct monitoring of phone calls, text messages, and internet use by removing the procedure of getting access from private telecom operators.
However, the government provided no information about what agencies will have access to the system, who may authorize surveillance, and what legal standards must be met to intercept various kinds of data or communications for CMS.
Last month, the government shared with the Parliament that it had asked social networking sites to block 1,299 web addresses or URLs to comply with court orders between January 2013 and January 2014, with the reason stated as ‘for hosting objectionable information that had the potential to disturb the public order in the country’. Comparatively, only 8 website blocking requests were made in 2010.
Currently, the government is planning to deploy Netra on the lines of ‘national internet scanning & coordination centre’, a department that is already existing in countries like UK, US, China and Iran, thereby blurring the lines between dictatorship and democracy.