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Paper-thin Safeguards and Mass Surveillance in India

Posted by Chinmayi Arun at May 20, 2015 10:20 AM |
The Indian government's new mass surveillance systems present new threats to the right to privacy. Mass interception of communication, keyword searches and easy access to particular users' data suggest that state is moving towards unfettered large-scale monitoring of communication. This is particularly ominous given that our privacy safeguards remain inadequate even for targeted surveillance and its more familiar pitfalls.

This need for better safeguards was made apparent when the Gujarat government illegally placed a young  woman  under surveillance  for obviously illegitimate purposes, demonstrating that the current system is prone to egregious misuse.  While the lack of proper safeguards is problematic even in the context of targeted surveillance, it threatens the health of our democracy in the context of mass surveillance. The proliferation of mass surveillance means that vast amounts of data are collected easily using information technology, and lie relatively unprotected.

This paper examines the right to privacy and surveillance in India, in an effort to highlight more clearly the problems that are likely to emerge with mass surveillance of communication by the Indian Government. It does this by teasing out Indian privacy rights jurisprudence and the concerns underpinning it, by considering its utility in the context of mass surveillance and then explaining the kind of harm that might result if mass surveillance continues unchecked.

The first part of this paper threads together the evolution of Indian constitutional principles on privacy in the context of communication surveillance as well as search and seizure. It covers discussions of privacy in the context of our fundamental rights by the draftspersons of our constitution, and then moves on to the ways in which the Supreme Court of India has been reading the right to privacy into the constitution.

The second part of this paper discusses the difference between mass surveillance and targeted surveillance, and international human rights principles that attempt to mitigate the ill effects of mass surveillance.

The concluding part of the paper discusses mass surveillance in India, and makes a case for expanding our existing privacy safeguards to protect the right to privacy in a meaningful manner in face of state surveillance.

Download the paper here.