The Centre’s decision to authorise 10 central agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer in the country is a retrograde step that is symptomatic of a perverse global trend of governments wanting to snoop into conversations and browsing habits of millions of their citizens. This action is directly contradictory to the fundamental right to freedom enshrined in our Constitution. The Centre’s stand that the move is aimed at securing national security is weak given that in most cases related to terrorism the problem is not a lack of data, but a failure to act on information authorities already had. The assurances that the provision to snoop into citizens computers will be processed only under stipulated laws also do not give much comfort in the light of the revelations made by Edward Snowden that showed how agencies in the US were using provisions of the Patriot Act to secretly collect information on millions of Americans.

To be fair, one cannot fault the current NDA government alone for giving sweeping powers to law enforcement agencies when it comes to snooping on citizens. Previous governments under the UPA had also gone down the same path. For example in 2012, Canadian phone maker Blackberry was forced to set up a local server in India to enable law enforcement agencies to snoop into Blackberry Messenger. In 2013, a mass surveillance programme called the Central Monitoring System was launched. This allowed security agencies and even income tax officials to tap directly into e-mails and phone calls. The authorities justify snooping into users’ conversations and data interaction on the grounds of getting better information on potential terror attacks. The latest move is only an extension of this mindset. But the intelligence agencies need to show proof that the snooping programme in the past has actually thwarted a terrorist attack. On the other hand there is ample opportunity to misuse such sweeping powers for keeping political adversaries in check by muzzling freedom of speech and undermining privacy rights.

Indian data consumers are under attack from various other quarters wherein entities like Facebook have been found to be sharing user data to maximise profits. There are also hackers lurking around the dark corners of the Internet waiting for an opportunity to steal personal information and money from bank accounts of unsuspecting users. All this creates a mesh of data surveillance holding every citizen a virtual prisoner in the digital world. This comes at a time when Indian users are set to become the top data consuming population in the world. If the likes of Facebook are being forced to disclose what data they collect and how they use it, the government as the custodian of citizens’ right to privacy must also adopt transparent processes to inform citizens when and how it collects data and whom it is shared with. The Centre must submit itself to an independent audit on how it is using these powers.