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The Constitutionality of Indian Surveillance Law: Public Emergency as a Condition Precedent for Intercepting Communications

Bedavyasa Mohanty analyses the nuances of interception of communications under the Indian Telegraph Act and the Indian Post Office Act. In this post he explores the historical bases of surveillance law in India and examines whether the administrative powers of intercepting communications are Constitutionally compatible.

Introduction

State authorised surveillance in India derives its basis from two colonial legislations; §26 of the Indian Post Office Act, 1898 and §5 of the Telegraph Act, 1885 (hereinafter the Act) provide for the interception of postal articles[1] and messages transmitted via telegraph[2] respectively. Both of these sections, which are analogous, provide that the powers laid down therein can only be invoked on the occurrence of a public emergency or in the interest of public safety. The task of issuing orders for interception of communications is vested in an officer authorised by the Central or the State government. This blog examines whether the preconditions set by the legislature for allowing interception act as adequate safeguards. The second part of the blog analyses the limits of discretionary power given to such authorised officers to intercept and detain communications.

Surveillance by law enforcement agencies constitutes a breach of a citizen’s Fundamental Rights of privacy and the Freedom of Speech and Expression. It must therefore be justified against compelling arguments against violations of civil rights. Right to privacy in India has long been considered too ‘broad and moralistic’[3] to be defined judicially. The judiciary, though, has been careful enough to not assign an unbound interpretation to it. It has recognised that the breach of privacy has to be balanced against a compelling public interest [4] and has to be decided on a careful examination of the facts of a certain case. In the same breath, Indian courts have also legitimised surveillance by the state as long as such surveillance is not illegal or unobtrusive and is within bounds [5]. While determining what constitutes legal surveillance, courts have rejected “prior judicial scrutiny” as a mandatory requirement and have held that administrative safeguards are sufficient to legitimise an act of surveillance. [6]

Conditions Precedent for Ordering Interception

§§5(2) of the Telegraph Act and 26(2) of the Indian Post Office Act outline a two tiered test to be satisfied before the interception of telegraphs or postal articles. The first tier consists of sine qua nons in the form of an “occurrence of public emergency” or “in the interests of public safety.” The second set of requirements under the provisions is “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.” While vesting the power of interception in administrative officials, the sections contemplate a legal fiction where a public emergency exists and it is in the interest of sovereignty, integrity, security of the state or for the maintenance of public order/ friendly relations with foreign states. The term “public emergency,” however, has not been clearly defined by the legislature or by the courts. It thus vests arbitrary powers in a delegated official to order the interception of communication violating one’s Fundamental Rights.

Tracing the History of the Expression “Public Emergency”

The origins of the laws governing interception can be traced back to English laws of the late 19th Century; specifically one that imposed a penalty on a postal officer who delayed or intercepted a postal article.[7] This law guided the drafting of the Indian Telegraph Act in 1885 that legitimised interception of communications by the state. The expression “public emergency” appeared in the original Telegraph Act of 1885 and has been adopted in that form in all subsequent renderings of provisions relating to interception. Despite the contentious and vague nature of the expression, no consensus regarding its interpretation seems to have been arrived at. One of the first post-independence analyses of this provision was undertaken by the Law Commission in 1968. The 38th Law Commission in its report on the Indian Post Office Act, raised concerns about the constitutionality of the expression. The Law Commission was of the opinion that the term not having been defined in the constitution cannot serve as a reasonable ground for suspension of Fundamental Rights.[8] It further urged that a state of public emergency must be of such a nature that it is not secretive and is apparent to a reasonable man.[9] It thus challenged the operation of the act in its then current form where the determination of public emergency is the discretion of a delegated administrative official. The Commission, in conclusion, implored the legislature to amend the laws relating to interception to bring them in line with the Constitution. This led to the Telegraph (Amendment) Act of 1981. Questions regarding the true meaning of the expression and its potential misuse were brought up in both houses of the Parliament during passing of the amendment. The Law Ministry, however, did not issue any additional clarifications regarding the terms used in the Act. Instead, the Government claimed that the expressions used in the Act are “exactly those that are used in the Constitution.” [10] It may be of interest to note here that the Constitution of India, neither uses nor defines the term “public emergency.” Naturally, it is not contemplated as a ground for reasonably restricting Fundamental Rights provided under Article 19(1). [11] Similarly, concerns regarding the potential misuse of the powers were defended with the logically incompatible and factually inaccurate position that the law had not been misused in the past.[12]

Locating “Public Emergency” within a Proclamation of Emergency under the Constitution (?)

Public emergency in not equivalent to a proclamation of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution simply because it was first used in legislations over six decades before the drafting of the Indian Constitution began. Besides, orders for interception of communications have also been passed when the state was not under a proclamation of emergency. Moreover, public emergency is not the only prerequisite prescribed under the Act. §5(2) states that an order for interception can be passed either on the occurrence of public emergency or in the interest of public safety. Therefore, the thresholds for the satisfaction of both have to be similar or comparable. If the threshold for the satisfaction of public emergency is understood to be as high as a proclamation of emergency then any order for interception can be passed easily under the guise of public safety. The public emergency condition will then be rendered redundant. Public emergency is therefore a condition that is separate from a proclamation of emergency.

In a similar vein the Supreme Court has also clarified[13] that terms like “public emergency” and “any emergency,” when used as statutory prerequisites, refer to the occurrence of different kinds of events. These terms cannot be equated with one another merely on the basis of the commonality of one word.

The Supreme Court in Hukam Chand v. Union of India,[14] correctly stated that the terms public emergency and public safety must “take colour from each other.” However, the court erred in defining public emergency as a situation that “raises problems concerning the interest of the public safety, the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or the prevention of incitement to the commission of an offence.” This cyclic definition does not lend any clarity to the interpretive murk surrounding the term. The Act envisages public emergency as a sine qua non that must exist prior to a determination that there is a threat to public order and sovereignty and integrity of the state. The court’s interpretation on the other hand would suggest that a state of public emergency can be said to exist only when public order, sovereignty and integrity of the state are already threatened. Therefore, while conditions precedent exist for the exercise of powers under §5(2) of the Act, there are no objective standards against which they are to be tested.

Interpretation of Threshold Requirements

A similar question arose before the House of Lords in Liversidge v. Anderson.[15] The case examined the vires of an Act that vested an administrative authority with the conditional power to detain a person if there was reasonable cause to believe that the person was of hostile origin. Therein, Lord Atkin dissenting with the majority opinion stated in no unclear terms that power vested in the secretary of state was conditional and not absolute. When a conditional authority is vested in an administrative official but there aren’t any prescriptive guidelines for the determination of the preconditions, then the statute has the effect of vesting an absolute power in a delegated official. This view was also upheld by the Supreme Court in State of Madhya Pradesh v. Baldeo Prasad.[16] The court was of the opinion that a statute must not only provide adequate safeguards for the protection of innocent citizens but also require the administrative authority to be satisfied as to the existence of the conditions precedent laid down in the statute before making an order. If the statute failed to do so in respect of any condition precedent then the law suffered from an infirmity and was liable to be struck down as invalid.[17] The question of the existence of public emergency, therefore being left to the sole determination of an administrative official is an absolute and arbitrary power and is ultra vires the Constitution

Interestingly, in its original unamended form, §5 contained a provisio stating that a determination of public emergency was the sole authority of the secretary of state and such a finding could not be challenged before a court of law. It is this provision that the government repealed through the Telegraph (Amendment) Act of 1981 to bring it in line with Constitutional principles. The preceding discussion shows that the amendment did not have the effect of rectifying the law’s constitutional infirmities. Nonetheless, the original Telegraph Act and its subsequent amendment are vital for understanding the compatibility of surveillance standards with the Constitutional principles. The draconian provisio in the original act vesting absolute powers in an administrative official illustrates that the legislative intent behind the drafting of a 130 year law cannot be relied on in today’s context. Vague terms like public emergency that have been thoughtlessly adopted from a draconian law find no place in a state that seeks to guarantee to its citizens rights of free speech and expression.

Conclusion

Interception of communications under the Telegraph Act and the Indian Post office act violate not only one’s privacy but also one’s freedom of speech and expression. Besides, orders for the tapping of telephones violate not only the privacy of the individual in question but also that of the person he/she is communicating with. Considering the serious nature of this breach it is absolutely necessary that the powers enabling such interception are not only constitutionally authorised but also adequately safeguarded. The Fundamental Rights declared by Article 19(1) cannot be curtailed on any ground outside the relevant provisions of Cls. 2-6.[18] The restrictive clauses in Cls. (2)-(6) of Article 19 are exhaustive and are to be strictly construed.[19] Public emergency is not one of the conditions enumerated under Article 19 for curtailing fundamental freedoms. Moreover, it lacks adequate safeguards by vesting absolute discretionary power in a non-judicial administrative authority. Even if one were to ignore the massive potential for misuse of these powers, it is difficult to conceive that the interception provisions would stand a scrutiny of constitutionality.

Over the course of the last few years, India has been dangerously toeing the line that keeps it from turning into a totalitarian surveillance state. [20] In 2011, India was the third most intrusive state[21] with 1,699 requests for removal made to Google; in 2012 that number increased to 2529[22]. The media is abuzz with reports about the Intelligence Bureau wanting Internet Service Providers to log all customer details [23] and random citizens being videotaped by the Delhi Police for “looking suspicious.” It becomes essential under these circumstances to question where the state’s power ends and a citizens’ privacy begins. Most of the information regarding projects like the CMS and the CCTNS is murky and unconfirmed. But under the pretext of national security, government officials have refused to divulge any information regarding the kind of information included within these systems and whether any accountability measures exist. For instance, there have been conflicting opinions from various ministers regarding whether the internet would also be under the supervision of the CMS [24]. Even more importantly, citizens are unaware of what rights and remedies are available to them in instances of violation of their privacy.

The intelligence agencies that have been tasked with handling information collected under these systems have not been created under any legislation and therefore not subject to any parliamentary oversight. Attempts like the Intelligence Services (Powers and Regulation) Bill, 2011 have been shelved and not revisited since their introduction. The intelligence agencies that have been created through executive orders enjoy vast and unbridled powers that make them accountable to no one[25]. Before, vesting the Indian law enforcement agencies with sensitive information that can be so readily misused it is essential to ensure that a mechanism to check the use and misuse of that power exists. A three judge bench of the Supreme Court has recently decided to entertain a Public Interest Litigation aimed at subjecting the intelligence agencies to auditing by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. But the PIL even if successful will still only manage to scratch the surface of all the wide and unbridled powers enjoyed by the Indian intelligence agencies. The question of the constitutionality of interception powers, however, has not been subjected to as much scrutiny as is necessary. Especially at a time when the government has been rumoured to have already obtained the capability for mass dragnet surveillance such a determination by the Indian courts cannot come soon enough.


[1] Indian Post Office Act, 1898, § 26

[2] Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 § 5(2)

[3] PUCL v. Union of India, AIR 1997 SC 568

[4] Govind vs. State of Madhya Pradesh, (1975) 2 SCC 148

[5] Malak Singh vs. State Of Punjab & Haryana, AIR 1981 SC 760

[6] Supra note 3

[7] Law Commission, Indian Post Office Act, 1898 (38th Law Commission Report) para 84

[8] ibid

[9] id

[10] Lok Sabha Debates , Minister of Communications, Shri H.N. Bahuguna, August 9, 1972

[11] The Constitution of India, Article 358- Suspension of provisions of Article 19 during emergencies

[12] Lok Sabha Debates , Minister of Communications, Shri H.N. Bahuguna, August 9, 1972

[13] Hukam Chand v. Union of India, AIR 1976 SC 789

[14] ibid

[15] Liversidge v. Anderson [1942] A.C. 206

[16] State of M.P. v. Baldeo Prasad, AIR 1961 (SC) 293 (296)

[17] ibid

[18] Ghosh O.K. v. Joseph E.X. Air 1963 SC 812; 1963 Supp. (1) SCR 789

[19] Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. v. Union of India, AIR 1962 SC 305 (315); 1962 (3) SCR 842

[20] See Notable Observations- July to December 2012, Google Transparency Report, available at http://www.google.com/transparencyreport/removals/government/ (last visited on July 2, 2014) (a 90% increase in Content removal requests by the Indian Government in the last year)

[21] Willis Wee, Google Transparency Report: India Ranks as Third ‘Snoopiest’ Country, July 6, 2011 available at http://www.techinasia.com/google-transparency-report-india/ (last visited on July 2, 2014)

[22] See Notable Observations- July to December 2012, Google Transparency Report, available at http://www.google.com/transparencyreport/removals/government/ (last visited on July 2, 2014) (a 90% increase in Content removal requests by the Indian Government in the last year)

[23] Joji Thomas Philip, Intelligence Bureau wants ISPs to log all customer details, December 30, 2010 http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2010-12-30/news/27621627_1_online-privacy-internet-protocol-isps (last visited on July 2, 2014)

[24] Deepa Kurup, In the dark about ‘India’s Prism’ June 16, 2013 available at http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/in-the-dark-about-indias-prism/article4817903.ece

[25] Saikat Dutta, We, The Eavesdropped May 3, 2010 available at http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?265191 (last visited on July 2, 2014)

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