Brewing Up a Perfect Storm…and Still We Refuse to Learn!

It has been reported recently that the Indian government has launched a wide-ranging surveillance programme that will give its security agencies unbridled powers to tap directly into e-mails and phone calls without permission or supervision by courts or parliament. This programme will allow security agencies, and even income tax officials, to listen to and tape phone conversations, access private emails, text messages, posts on Facebooks, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Further, they will access to track searches on Google. It will apparently give the government the ability to target any of India’s 900 million landline and mobile phone subscribers and 120 million Internet users.


Image above is from Toban B.’s photostream on Flickr here and has been published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

India does not have a formal privacy law. Most probably, the new surveillance programme will operate under the archaic Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, which gives the government freedom to monitor private conversations. While the Supreme Court of India has held privacy to be a fundamental right, it is restricted to certain aspects of a person’s life and is still subject to the courts deciding the limits on a case by case basis (See Govind v. State Of Madhya Pradesh & Anr, 1975 AIR 1378). For instance, in 1996, petitioners had to argue before the Supreme Court of India that the right to speak privately over the telephone was a fundamental right (See People’s Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL) Vs. Union Of India and Anr., AIR 1997 SC 568).


Image above is from ubiquit23’s photostream on Flickr here and has been published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

This programme – in the world’s most populous democracy – has alarmed privacy advocates at a time when the world is still coming to terms with the shocking revelations by Edward Snowden about the activities of the security agencies of United States. There, it has been revealed that the government was, effectively, snooping on people from within and outside of the country by accessing their personal accounts and data. Cynthia Wong, an Internet researcher at New York’s Human Rights Watch, states that “If India doesn’t want to look like an authoritarian regime, it needs to be transparent about who will be authorised to collect data, what data will be collected, how it will be used, and how the right to privacy will be protected.

(Samar Jha is a member of the faculty at