The State is Snooping: Can You Escape?

Posted by Snehashish Ghosh at Jun 27, 2013 09:05 AM |
Blanket surveillance of the kind envisaged by India's Centralized Monitoring System achieves little, but blatantly violates the citizen's right to privacy; Snehashish Ghosh explores why it may be dangerous and looks at potential safeguards against such intrusion.

The Snowden Leaks have made it amply clear that the covert surveillance conducted by governments is no longer covert. Information by its very nature is prone to leaks. The discretion lies completely in the hands of the personnel handling your data or information. Whether it is through knowledge obtained by an intelligence analyst about the US Government conducting indiscriminate surveillance, or hackers infiltrating a secure system and leaking personal information, stored information has a tendency to come out in the open sooner or later.

This raises the question whether, with the advancement of technologies, we should trust our personal information and data with computers. Should we have more stringent laws and procedural safeguards to protect our personal information? Of course, the broader question that remains is whether we have a ‘Right to be Forgotten’.

Similar to PRISM in the US, India is also implementing a Centralized Monitoring System (CMS) which would have the capabilities to conduct multiple privacy-intrusive activities, ranging from call data record analysis to location based monitoring. Given the circumstances and the current revelations by a whistleblower in the US, it is more than imperative to take a closer look at the surveillance technologies which are being deployed by India and question what implications it might have in the future.

Technological shift and procedural safeguards
The need for procedural safeguards was brought to light in the Supreme Court case, when news reports surfaced about the tapping of politicians' phones by the CBI. The Court while deciding on the issue of phone tapping in the case of People’s Union of Civil Liberties v. Union of India (1996), observed that the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 is an ancient legislation and does not address the issue of telephone tapping. Thereafter, the court issued guidelines, which were implemented by the Government by amending and inserting Rule 419A of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951. These procedural safeguards ensure that due process will be followed by any law enforcement agency, while conducting surveillance.

Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 grants the power to the Government to conduct surveillance provided that there is an occurrence of any public emergency or public safety. If and only if the conditions of public safety and public emergency are compromised, and if the concerned authority is convinced that it is expedient to issue such an order for interception in the interest of “the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of an offence” is surveillance legitimized. The same was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in the 1996 judgment on wire tapping.

Now, as the Government of India is planning to launch a new technology, the Centralized Monitoring System (CMS) which would snoop, track and monitor communication data flowing through telecom and data networks, the question arises: can we have procedural safeguards which would protect our right to privacy against technologies such as the CMS?

The key component of a procedural safeguard is human discretion; either a court authorization or an order from a high ranking government official is necessary to conduct targeted surveillance and the reasons for conducting surveillance have to be recorded in writing. This is the procedure which is ordinarily followed by law enforcement agencies before conducting any form of surveillance. However, with the computational turn, governments have resorted to practices which would do away with the human discretion. Dragnet surveillance allows for blanket surveillance. Before getting to the problems in evolving a due process for systems like CMS, it is imperative to examine the capabilities of the system.

Centralized Monitoring System and death of due process
Setting up of a CMS was conceptualized in India after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It was further consolidated and found a place in the Report of the Telecom Working Group on the Telecom Sector for the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017). The Report was published in August, 2011 and goes into the details of the CMS.

When machines and robots are deployed to conduct blanket surveillance and impinge on the most fundamental right to life and liberty, and also violate the basic tenets of due process, then much cannot be done by way of procedures. What then do we resort to, is the primary question. Can there be a compromise between the right to privacy and security?

The Report indicates that the technology will cater to “the requirements of security management for law enforcement agencies for interception, monitoring, data analysis/mining, anti‐social‐networking using the country’s telecom infrastructure for unlawful activities.”

The CMS will also be capable of running algorithms for interception of connection oriented networks, algorithms for interception of voice over internet protocol (VoIP), video over IP and GPS based monitoring systems. These algorithms would be able to intercept any communication without any intervention from the telecom or internet service provider. It would also have the capability to intercept and analyze data on any communication network as well as to conduct location based monitoring by tracking GPS locations. Given such capabilities, it is clear that a computer system will be sifting through the internet/communication data and will conduct surveillance as instructed through algorithms. This would include identifying patterns, profiling and also storing data for posterity. Moreover, the CMS will have direct access to the telecommunication infrastructure and would be monitoring all forms of communication.

With the introduction of CMS, state surveillance will shift to blanket surveillance from the current practice of targeted surveillance which can be carried out under specific circumstances that are well defined in the law and in judgments. Moreover, when it comes to current means of surveillance, there are well-defined procedures under the law which have the ability to prevent misuse of the surveillance systems. This is not to say that the current procedural safeguards under the laws are not prone to abuse, but if implemented properly, there is less chance of them being misused. Furthermore, with strong privacy and data protection laws, unlawful and illegal surveillance can be minimized.

In the current legal framework, with respect to surveillance, if CMS is implemented then it will be in violation of the fundamental right to privacy and freedom of speech as guaranteed under our Constitution. It will be also in contravention of the procedural safeguards laid down in the Supreme Court judgement and the Rule 419A of Indian Telegraph Rules, thereof. Strong privacy laws and data protection laws may be put in place, which are completely absent now. But at the end of the day, a machine will be spying on every citizen of India or anyone using any communication services, without any specific targets or suspects.

In the People’s Union of Civil Liberties v. Union of India (1996), the Supreme Court laid down that “the substantive law as laid down in Section 5(2) of the [Indian Telegraph Act, 1885] must have procedural backing so that the exercise of power is fair and reasonable.” But with technologies such as CMS, it will be very difficult to have any form of procedural backing because the system would do away with human discretion which happens to be a key ingredient of any legal procedure.

The argument which can be made in favour of CMS, if any, is that a machine will be going through personal data and it will not be available to any personnel or law enforcement agency without authorization and therefore, it will adhere to the due process. However, such a system will be keeping track of all personal information. Right to privacy is the right to be left alone and any incursion on this fundamental right can only be allowed in special cases, in cases of public emergency or threat of public safety. So, electronic blanket surveillance without human intervention also amounts to violation of the substantive law, which specifically allows surveillance only to be conducted under certain conditions, and not through a system such as CMS that is designed to keep a constant watch on everyone, irrespective of the fact whether there is a need to do so.

Additionally, there exists a strong, pre-established notion that whatever comes out of a computer is bound to be true and authentic and there cannot be any mistakes. We have witnessed this in the past where an IT professional from Bangalore was arrested and detained by the Maharashtra Police for posting derogatory content on Orkut about Shivaji. Later, it was found that the records acquired from the Internet Service Provider were incorrect and the individual had been arrested and detained illegally.

Telephone bills, credit card bills coming out from a computer system are often held to be authentic and error-free. With UID, our identity has been reduced to a number and biometrics stored in a database corresponding to that number. It is this trust in anything which comes out of a computer or a machine that can lead to massive abuse of the system in the absence of any form of checks and balance in place. Artificial things taking control over human lives and our almost unflinching trust in technology will not only cause gross violations of privacy but will also be the death of due process and basic human rights as we know it.

In this regard, due emphasis should be given to the landmark Supreme Court judgment in the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978) which deals with issues related to due process and privacy. It states that "procedure which deals with the modalities of regulating, restricting or even rejecting a fundamental right falling within Article 21 has to be fair, not foolish, carefully designed to effectuate, not to subvert, the substantive right itself. Thus, understood, ‘procedure’ must rule out anything arbitrary, freakish or bizarre. A valuable constitutional right can be canalised only by canalised processes".

When machines and robots are deployed to conduct blanket surveillance and impinge on the most fundamental right to life and liberty and also violate the basic tenets of due process, then much cannot be done by way of procedures. What then do we resort to, is the primary question. Can there be a compromise between the right to privacy and security?

A no-win situation
In reality, dragnet surveillance or blanket surveillance is not very useful for gathering valuable intelligence to prevent instances of threat to national security, public safety and public emergency. For example, if the CMS is used to mine data, analyse content related to anti-social activities and even if the system is 99 per cent accurate, the remaining 1 per cent which is a false positive happens to be a large set. So, 1 out of every 100 individuals identified as an anti-social element by CMS may actually be an innocent citizen. Given the possibility of false positives and which may be more than 1 per cent, the number of innocent citizens caught in the terrorist net would be much higher.

Even though blanket surveillance or dragnet surveillance can keep a tab on everyone, it is nearly impossible for an algorithm to separate the terrorists from the rest. Moreover, the data set collected by the machine is too big for any human analyst, to actually analyze and identify the terrorist in the midst of a deluge of information. Therefore, the argument that a system like CMS will ensure security in lieu of minor intrusions of privacy is a flawed one. Implementation of CMS will not really ensure security but will be a case of blatant violation of individual’s right to privacy anyway.

What is perhaps more shocking is that not only will CMS be futile in preventing security breaches or neutralizing security threats, it will on the contrary expose individual Indian citizens to breach of personal security. If personal data and information are stored for future reference through a centralized mechanism, which is also the case with UID, it will be highly susceptible to attacks and security threats. It will be a Pandora’s Box with a potential to create havoc the moment someone is able to gain access to the information with intention to misuse that. Leaking of personal information and data on a large scale can be detrimental to society and give rise to instances of public emergency.

The ‘Right to be Forgotten’

Currently, the European Union is engulfed in the debate on the “Right to be Forgotten” laws. The Right to be Forgotten finds its origins in the French Law le droit à l’oubli or the right of oblivion, where a convict who has served his sentence can object to the publication of facts of his conviction and imprisonment or penalty. This law has a new found meaning in the context of social media and the internet, where we have the right to delete all our personal information permanently. This is an important issue which India should debate and discuss, as we live in an era where privacy comes at a cost.

On the one hand, technology has made it easier to track, trace, monitor and snoop, on the other it has also seen innovation in the field of encryption and anonymity tools. Encryption tools such as Open PGP exist online, which can secure information from third party access. Tor Browser, allows an user to surf the web anonymously. The use of such technologies should be encouraged as there is no law which prohibits their use. If systems are being built to spy on us, it will be better if we use technologies which protect our personal information from such surveillance technologies.