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Introduction: About the Privacy and Surveillance Roundtables

Posted by Manoj Kurbet at Nov 27, 2014 01:34 PM |
The Privacy and Surveillance Roundtables is a Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) initiative, in partnership with the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), as well as local partners. The Roundtable will be closed-door deliberation involving multiple stakeholders. Through the course of these discussions we aim to deliberate upon the current legal framework for surveillance in India, and discuss possible frameworks for surveillance in India.

The provisions of the draft CIS Privacy Bill 2013, the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance, and the Report of the Group of Experts on Privacy will be used as background material and entry points into the discussion. The recommendations and dialogue from each roundtable will be compiled and submitted to the Department of Personnel and training.

The third Privacy and Surveillance Roundtable was held in New Delhi at the India International Centre by the Centre for Internet and Society in collaboration with the Cellular Operators Association of India and Vahura, legal Partner on the 1st of September, 2014.

The aim of the discussion was to gain inputs on what would constitute an ideal surveillance regime in India working with theCIS Draft Privacy Protection Bill, the Report of the Group of Experts on Privacy prepared by the Justice Shah committee, and the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.

Background and Context: Privacy and Surveillance in India

The discussion began with the chair giving an overview of the legal framework that governs communications interception under Indian Law in the interest of the participants since many were there for the first time.

The legal system to govern the manner in which communications are intercepted in India are defined under three main acts

1. Interception of Telephonic Calls : The Telegraph Act 1885

2. Interception of Posts : The Indian Post Office Act,1898

3. Interception of Electronic communication like e-mails etc :The IT Act, 2000

While the interception of postal mail is governed by Section 26 of the Post Office Act, 1898, the interception of modern forms of communication that use electronic information and traffic data are governed under Sections 69 and 69B of the Information Technology Act, 2000, while interception of telephonic conversations are governed by section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act 1885 and subsequent rules under section 419A.

The main discussion of the meeting revolved around the Telegraph Act since it is the main Act which covers the interception of telecommunications. In 1968 the 30th Law Commission Report studying Section 5(2) of this Act came to the conclusion that the standards in the Act may be unconstitutional given factors such as 'public emergency' & 'public safety' were too wide in nature and called for a relook at the provision.

Objective of Round Table Meetings

The objective of the round table meetings is to, be prepared with the proposals on the Privacy Bill which the new government intends to split into separate Bill for Surveillance and Data privacy. Thus these submissions once out in the public domain would further deliberate more discussion and shape the course of the Bill.



The chair initiated the discussion continuing from the last meeting about the two models of authorisation for Interception 1. The Judiciary & 2. The Executive

The chair explained why the earlier proposed Judiciary based model, based on the efficient experience of separation of power, would not fit into the Indian context. The main reason for this being that the lower judiciary in India is not competent enough to take decisions of this nature. Providing examples, the chair explained how in many cases the lower Judiciary overlooks essential human rights in their decisions, and such rights are only addressed when the case is appealed in Higher courts. While participants felt that High Court judges would be favourable, it was expressed that the immense backlog at the High Court level and the lack of judges is a challenge and risks being inefficient. Thus an additional responsibility for the High Court would not be a feasible model. Furthermore, adopting a judicial based model would mean that the existing model of executive would need to be entirely replaced. Owing to these practical implementation issues consensus was built over adoption of the existing executive model, but with more safeguards.

Safeguards proposed:

1. A redressal tribunal: Establishing a tribunal for the redressal of interception complaints. The tribunal could be a non-active body. Such a model would be different from other models adopted around the world - for example e in UK a designated tribunal suo-motu reviews cases on a regular basis. The tribunal could also have judicial review authority, to which one of the participants raised an issue that the tribunals usually will not have the power of Judicial review, however the chair assured him that the delegation of Judicial review to a tribunal does exist in Indian law.

2. A review commission: Establishing a commission to review the interceptions carried out on the orders of home secretary. For such an overseeing body, the commissioner should be appointed independently. The commissioner must be a Judge or a senior Lawyer and should report to the Parliament.

Content data and Metadata

In the next session the chair explained the difference between content data and metadata while initiating discussion on provisions addressing them in the proposed Bill. Content data, also called as payload data, is the actual content of the communication which takes place between X and Y.

Example 1: In the VOIP call the voice is packetized and sent in different packets to the destination, the content of that packet is the content data whereas the information of this content i.e the header, footer and checksum of the packet is the metadata.

Example 2: In the serial communication of the normal phone call the content data will be what the communication happened between two or more people over the call and the metadata will be who were involved in the call, on what date and time the call was made from which place, and under which tower.

It was noted that generally it is easier to intercept metadata than content data. In the proposed bill, section 2 (C) refers to the definition of content data and section 2(E) to metadata.

Participants also pointed out that often it is with metadata that concerned governmental authorities are able to carry out tracking. Thus, when determining procedural safeguards for surveillance - and specifically for interception - the question of whether or not content data and meta data should be treated the same under law must be addressed. Participants suggested looking into German laws, which have procedure to deal with this question. Despite differences over the exact level of protection meta data should legally be afforded, participants agreed that a higher authority should be responsible for the interception, collection, and access to metadata and content data.

In India, because the existing legal framework in India has different standards for different modes of communication, it is proposed that a uniform legal framework be created by harmonizing the three Acts through amendments or overriding existing legislation regulating surveillance in India, and establishing a new framework under a Privacy legislation.

Big Data, Cloud & OTT

In this session a participant raised the issue of Big data and Cloud services, and asked whether the CIS Privacy Protection Bill or the draft Privacy Bill from the government addresses this issue. This question was of particular relevance because a number of the cloud data centres are located in locations outside India. Thus a question of jurisdiction arises. The participant opined that in the coming years and with the new government's vision to have space for every citizen in cloud and data localisation being priority, he stressed that the Bill should clearly address issues related to the cloud, big data, outsourcing, and questions of jurisdiction. Responding to this the chair was of the view that the crimes committed outside the territory of India come under Extra-territorial law, section 4 of IPC and Section 188 Cr. P.C. But it was noted that due to the fact that the crime is committed outside the territory of India, despite the provision, it is practically not implementable unless there is a contract between countries or a treaty signed. The solution could be data localisation, hosting the cloud servers in India, but that again has its own pros & cons. In response participants indicated that if a choice had to be made about data localization - the best option would be one that would be economical for Indian business and the government.

OTT (Over the Top) Services

Another participant brought to the notice of the meeting that most of the networks of service provider's are adopting IP (Internet Protocol). In the context of surveillance, this means that for an interception to take place, Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) must be adopted by service providers. This is currently placing a burden on service providers, as it is costly and the connection time of the calls for the number under surveillance increases - though not enough to be noticed by customers.

Telephone Tapping Process

In India the process of intercepting telephones can be broken down into the following three steps:

1. Authorization

a. The Home Secretary issues an authorization for an interception request.

b. The Authorization is handed over to Police Officer in charge of the investigation.

c. The Police Officer serves the order to the nodal officer in the relevant service provider.

2. The service provider conducts the interception.

3. The intercepted data is handed over to the Police officer.

Under Rule 419A, a committee to review the authorization exists, comprising of officials such as the Cabinet Secretary, Secretary of the Department of Telecommunications, Secretary of the Department of Law and Justice and the Secretary of Information Technology and Communication ministry at the Centre and the Chief Secretary, the Law Secretary and an officer not below the rank of a Principal secretary at the State level.

Since the current infrastructure of telecom and broadband is with private service providers, the government is dependent on service providers to carry out surveillance. As national security is a concern of the government and because in the past intercepted material has been leaked by various sources, the government has proposed to replace the existing system. In this regard the government has proposed to set up a Central Monitoring System (CMS) for the interception of voice and data communications.

It is proposed that the CMS infrastructure will be positioned at the service provider's facilities, and will allow governmental agencies to directly intercept traffic on the network of service providers - thus there would no longer be a need for the government to reply on service providers to carry out interception requests. During the meeting it was discussed how this system has pros & cons


1. For private companies it eliminates an entire level of compliance.

2. It will reduce the possibility of unlawful, extra legal, & fraudulent authorizations of interception requests.

3. The interception carried out would be maintained in a log, which would clearly recorded, making the interception process becomes accountable.


1. Even though the existing system gives room for leaks, ironically it is the only way through which a person who is tapped will come to know, hence accounting for some transparency eg: Nira Radia & Amar Singh phone Tap case.

2. CMS will be built upon an existing interception framework, which is not procedurally fair - because of issues such as Internal Authorization, Adhoc procedure, that it is not under the ambit of RTI etc. This will result in a system with no transparency and accountability.

To this last point the Chair noted that in 2011 there were 7.5 Lakh phone taps by a single agency which was reportedly illegal. In an attempt to minimize such brazen violations a Privacy Bill is mooted and the round table conference is a step towards making it possible.

Immunity to TSP's & ISP's

Participants also raised the issue of difficulties that TSPs face while engaged in the process of interception, as they are caught between the customers and government authorities and subjected to harassment sometimes. This places service providers in a position where they must often make a number of compromises as they are expected to store traffic data for a specified period of time, but sometimes a judge might ask for access to data that is dated past the specific retention period. In such a scenario, service providers must provide it by accessing backup data.

The question of who should be the custodian of intercepted data was raised by participants as well as who should be held accountable if intercepted data is leaked into the public domain. The chair responded that the officers investigating the case should be held accountable for the intercepted data. This would be analogous to the system under the Right to Information Act whereby the Information officer is named and held accountable for the data or information he provides. Similarly, for the case of intercepted material, an officer should be named and held accountable for the data and ensuring that it reaches those that it is legally intended to.

It was also expressed that a market regulator, responsible for the safeguarding the interest of communication service providers, could be appointed for handling the personal data. Such a role could be merged with the traditional role of a Data Protection Authority and could be the first step towards an information security and assurance regime.

Legal immunity given to service providers was also discussed, as there was a general concern about the position service providers find themselves in - being held legally liable for not complying with orders from the government and being taken to court by citizens.

Format of Interception Orders and Interception as a service

A question was also posed to participants about what information ideally - apart from the intended duration of the order - should be incorporated into interception orders. Participants suggested that the order should be as specific and precise as possible, which the existing format to a large extent confirms. On the topic, a participant noted that in some cases, despite DoPT guidelines, interception orders are issued in regional languages. This can pose as a problem as the nodal officer might not know the language, thus leading to possible ambiguity & misinterpretation of the order. Participants suggested that orders should be in English.

Participants also pointed out that in most European countries - like France and Italy - a fee for the compliance cost arising out of implementing an interception order is paid to service providers by the government. In India, huge costs are involved in carrying out interceptions which service providers presently have to bare. As law enforcement and security agencies ask for more and more accuracy in surveillance, the charges of carrying out surveillance. To address this, participants suggested that interception as a service should be accommodated in the proposed Bill.


The discussions in the Surveillance and Privacy Roundtable in New Delhi mainly revolved around the authorization model and the process of interception. Overall, participants agreed on an organised executive model with an established accountability and review system. Also discussed was how to ensure that service providers are legally protected from disproportionate and unwarranted penalties. Towards this, the interception process should be viewed as a service rather than an obligation.