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Is the new ‘interception’ order old wine in a new bottle?

Posted by Elonnai Hickok, Vipul Kharbanda, Shweta Mohandas and Pranav M. Bidare at Dec 29, 2018 04:02 PM |
The government could always authorise intelligence agencies to intercept and monitor communications, but the lack of clarity is problematic.

An opinion piece co-authored by Elonnai Hickok, Vipul Kharbanda, Shweta Mohandas and Pranav M. Bidare was published in Newslaundry.com on December 27, 2018.


On December 20, 2018, through an order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), 10 security agencies—including the Intelligence Bureau, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate and the National Investigation Agency—were listed as the intelligence agencies in India with the power to intercept, monitor and decrypt "any information" generated, transmitted, received, or stored in any computer under Rule 4 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009, framed under section 69(1) of the IT Act.

On December 21, the Press Information Bureau published a press release providing clarifications to the previous day’s order. It said the notification served to merely reaffirm the existing powers delegated to the 10 agencies and that no new powers were conferred on them. Additionally, the release also stated that “adequate safeguards” in the IT Act and in the Telegraph Act to regulate these agencies’ powers.

Presumably, these safeguards refer to the Review Committee constituted to review orders of interception and the  prior approval needed by the Competent Authority—in this case, the secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs in the case of the Central government and the secretary in charge of the Home Department in the case of the State government.

As noted in the press release, the government has always had the power to authorise intelligence agencies to submit requests to carry out the interception, decryption, and monitoring of communications, under Rule 4 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009, framed under section 69(1) of the IT Act.

When considering the implications of this notification, it is important to look at it in the larger framework of India’s surveillance regime, which is made up of a set of provisions found across multiple laws and operating licenses with differing standards and surveillance capabilities.

- Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 allows the government (or an empowered authority) to intercept or detain transmitted information on the grounds of a public emergency, or in the interest of public safety if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do in the interests 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. This is supplemented by Rule 419A of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951, which gives further directions for the interception of these messages.

-  Condition 42 of the Unified Licence for Access Services, mandates that every telecom service provider must facilitate the application of the Indian Telegraph Act. Condition 42.2 specifically mandates that the license holders must comply with Section 5 of the same Act.

- Section 69(1) of the Information Technology Act and associated Rules allows for the interception, monitoring, and decryption of information stored or transmitted  through any computer resource if it is found to be necessary or expedient to do in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence.

- Section 69B of the Information Technology Act and associated Rules empowers the Centre to authorise any agency of the government to monitor and collect traffic data “to enhance cyber security, and for identification, analysis, and prevention of intrusion, or spread of computer contaminant in the country”.

- Section 92 of the CrPc allows for a Magistrate or Court to order access to call record details.

Notably, a key difference between the IT Act and the Telegraph Act in the context of interception is that the Telegraph Act permits interception for preventing incitement to the commission of an offence on the condition of public emergency or in the interest of public safety while the IT Act permits interception, monitoring, and decryption  of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence. Technically, this difference in surveillance capabilities and grounds for interception could mean that different intelligence agencies would be authorized to carry out respective surveillance capabilities under each statute. Though the Telegraph Act and the associated Rule 419A do not contain an equivalent to Rule 4—nine Central Government agencies and one State Government agency have previously been authorized under the Act. The Central Government agencies authorised under the Telegraph Act are the same as the ones mentioned in the December 20 notification with the following differences:

- Under the Telegraph Act, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) has the authority to intercept. However, the 2018 notification more specifically empowers  the Cabinet Secretariat of RAW to issue requests for interception under the IT Act.

- Under the Telegraph Act, the Director General of Police, of concerned state/Commissioner of Police, Delhi for Delhi Metro City Service Area, has the authority to intercept. However, the 2018 notification specifically authorises  the Commissioner of Police, New Delhi with the power to issue requests for interception.

That said, the IT (Procedure and safeguard for Monitoring and Collecting Traffic Data or Information) Rules, 2009 under 69B of the IT Act  contain a provision similar to Rule 4 of the IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009 - allowing the government to authorize agencies that can monitor and collect traffic data.  In 2016, the Central Government authorised the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team to monitor and collect traffic data, or information generated, transmitted, received, or stored in any computer resource. This was an exercise of the power conferred upon the Central Government by Section 69B(1) of the IT Act. However, this notification does not reference Rule 4 of the IT Rules, thus it is unclear if a  similar notification has been issued under Rule 4.

While it is accurate that the order does not confer new powers, areas of concern that existed with India’s surveillance regime continue to remain including the question of whether 69(1) and 69B and associated Rules are constitutionally valid, the lack of transparency by the government and the prohibition of transparency by service providers, heavy handed penalties on service providers for non-compliance, and a lack of legal backing and oversight mechanisms for intelligence agencies. Some of these could be addressed if the draft Data Protection Bill 2018 is enacted and the Puttaswamy Judgement fully implemented.

Conclusion

The MHA’s order and the press release thereafter have served to  publicise and provide needed clarity with respect to the powers vested in which intelligence agencies in India under section 69(1) of the IT Act.  This was previously unclear and could have posed a challenge to ensuring oversight and accountability of actions taken by intelligence agencies issuing requests under section 69(1) .

The publishing of the list has subsequently served to raise questions and create a debate about key issues concerning privacy, surveillance and state overreach. On December 24, the order was challenged by advocate ML Sharma on the grounds of it being illegal, unconstitutional and contrary to public interest. Sharma in his contention also stated the need for the order to be tested on the basis of the right to privacy established by the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy which laid out the test of necessity, legality, and proportionality. According to this test, any law that encroaches upon the privacy of the individual will have to be justified in the context of the right to life under Article 21.

But there are also other questions that exist. India has multiple laws enabling its surveillance regime and though this notification clarifies which intelligence agencies can intercept under the IT Act, it is still seemingly unclear which intelligence agencies can monitor and collect traffic data under the 69B Rules. It is also unclear what this order means for past interceptions that have taken place by agencies on this list or agencies outside of this list under section 69(1) and associated Rules of the IT Act. Will these past interceptions possess the same evidentiary value as interceptions made by the authorised agencies in the order?

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