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The Central Monitoring System: Some Questions to be Raised in Parliament

Posted by Bhairav Acharya at Sep 19, 2013 05:00 PM |
The following are some model questions to be raised in the Parliament regarding the lack of transparency in the central monitoring system.


  • The Central Monitoring System (CMS) is a Central Government project to intercept communications, both voice and data, that is transmitted via telephones and the internet to, from and within India. Owing to the vast nature of this enterprise, the CMS cannot be succinctly described and the many issues surrounding this project are diverse. This Issue Brief will outline preliminary constitutional, legal and technical concerns that are presented by the CMS.
  • At the outset, it must be clearly understood that no public documentation exists to explain the scope, functions and technical architecture of the CMS. This lack of transparency is the single-largest obstacle to understanding the Central Government’s motives in conceptualising and operationalizing the CMS. This lack of public documentation is also the chief reason for the brevity of this Issue Note. Without making public the policy, law and technical abilities of the CMS, there cannot be an informed national debate on the primary concerns posed by the CMS, i.e the extent of envisaged state surveillance upon Indian citizens and the safeguards, if any, to protect the individual right to privacy.

Surveillance and Privacy

  • Surveillance is necessary to secure political organisation. Modern nation-states, which are theoretically organised on the basis of shared national and societal characteristics, require surveillance to detect threats to these characteristics. In democratic societies, beyond the immediate requirements of national integrity and security, surveillance must be targeted at securing the safety and rights of individual citizens. This Issue Brief does not dispute the fact that democratic countries, such as India, should conduct surveillance to secure legitimate ends. Concerns, however, arise when surveillance is conducted in a manner unrestricted and unregulated by law; these concerns are compounded when a lack of law is accompanied by a lack of transparency.
  • Technological advancement leads to more intrusive surveillance. The evolution of surveillance in the United States resulted, in 1967, in the first judicial recognition of the right to privacy. In Katz v. United States the US Supreme Court ruled that the privacy of communications had to be balanced with the need to conduct surveillance; and, therefore, wiretaps had to be warranted, judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. Katz expanded the scope of the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which protected against unreasonable searches and seizures. Most subsequent US legal developments relating to the privacy of communications from surveillance originate in the Katz judgement. Other common law countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, have experienced similar judicial evolution to recognise that the right to privacy must be balanced with governance.

Right to Privacy in India

  • Unfortunately, India does not have a persuasive jurisprudence of privacy protection. In the Kharak Singh (1964) and Gobind (1975) cases, the Supreme Court of India considered the question of privacy from physical surveillance by the police in and around the homes of suspects. In the latter case, the Supreme Court found that some of the Fundamental Rights “could be described as contributing to the right to privacy” which was nevertheless subject to a compelling public interest. This insipid inference held the field until 1994 when, in the Rajagopal (“Auto Shankar”, 1994) case, the Supreme Court, for the first time, directly located privacy within the ambit of the right to personal liberty recognised by Article 21 of the Constitution. However, Rajagopal dealt specifically with the publication of an autobiography, it did not consider the privacy of communications. In 1997, the Supreme Court considered the question of wiretaps in the PUCL case. While finding that wiretaps invaded the privacy of communications, it continued to permit them subject to some procedural safeguards which continue to be routinely ignored. A more robust statement of the right to privacy was made recently by the Delhi High Court in the Naz Foundation case (2011) that de-criminalised consensual homosexual acts; however, this judgment has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

Issues Pertaining to the CMS

  • While judicial protection from physical surveillance was cursorily dealt with in the Kharak Singh and Gobind cases, the Supreme Court of India directly considered the issue of wiretaps in the PUCL case. Wiretaps in India primarily occur on the strength of powers granted to certain authorities under section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. The Court found that the Telegraph Act, and Rules made thereunder, did not prescribe adequate procedural safeguards to create a “just and fair” mechanism to conduct wiretaps. Therefore, it laid down the following procedure to conduct wiretaps:

(a) the order should be issued by the relevant Home Secretary (this power is delegable to a Joint Secretary),
(b) the interception must be carried out exactly in terms of the order and not in excess of it,
(c) a determination of whether the information could be reasonably secured by other means,
(d) the interception shall cease after sixty (60) days.

  • Therefore, prima facie, any voice interception conducted through the CMS will be in violation of this Supreme Court judgement. The CMS will enforce blanket surveillance upon the entire country without regard for reasonable cause or necessity. This movement away from targeted surveillance to blanket surveillance without cause, conducted without statutory sanction and without transparency, is worrying.
  • Accordingly, the following questions may be raised, in Parliament, to learn more about the CMS project:
  1. Which statutes, Government Orders, notifications etc deal with the establishment and maintenance of the CMS?
  2. Which is the nodal agency in charge of implementing the CMS?
  3. What are the powers and functions of the nodal agency?
  4. What guarantees exist to protect ordinary Indian citizens from intrusive surveillance without cause?
  5. What are the technical parameters of the CMS?
  6. What are the consequences for misuse or abuse of powers by any person working in the CMS project?
  7. What recourse is available to Indian citizens against whom there is unnecessary surveillance or against whom there has been a misuse or abuse of power?