Transparency in Surveillance

Posted by Vipul Kharbanda at Jan 23, 2016 03:11 PM |
Transparency is an essential need for any democracy to function effectively. It may not be the only requirement for the effective functioning of a democracy, but it is one of the most important principles which need to be adhered to in a democratic state.


A democracy involves the state machinery being accountable to the citizens that it is supposed to serve, and for the citizens to be able to hold their state machinery accountable, they need accurate and adequate information regarding the activities of those that seek to govern them. However, in modern democracies it is often seen that those in governance often try to circumvent legal requirements of transparency and only pay lip service to this principle, while keeping their own functioning as opaque as possible.

This tendency to not give adequate information is very evident in the departments of the government which are concerned with surveillance, and merit can be found in the argument that all of the government's clandestine surveillance activities cannot be transparent otherwise they will cease to be "clandestine" and hence will be rendered ineffective. However, this argument is often misused as a shield by the government agencies to block the disclosure of all types of information about their activities, some of which may be essential to determine whether the current surveillance regime is working in an effective, ethical, and legal manner or not. It is this exploitation of the argument, which is often couched in the language of or coupled with concerns of national security, that this paper seeks to address while voicing the need for greater transparency in surveillance activities and structures.

In the first section the paper examines the need for transparency, and specifically deals with the requirement for transparency in surveillance. In the next part, the paper discusses the regulations governing telecom surveillance in India. The final part of the paper discusses possible steps that may be taken by the government in order to increase transparency in telecom surveillance while keeping in mind that the disclosure of such information should not make future surveillance ineffective.

Need for Transparency

In today's age where technology is all pervasive, the term "surveillance" has developed slightly sinister overtones, especially in the backdrop of the Edward Snowden fiasco. Indeed, there have been several independent scandals involving mass surveillance of people in general as well as illegal surveillance of specific individuals. The fear that the term surveillance now invokes, especially amongst those social and political activists who seek to challenge the status quo, is in part due to the secrecy surrounding the entire surveillance regime. Leaving aside what surveillance is carried out, upon whom, and when - the state actors are seldom willing and open to talk about how surveillance is carried out, how decisions regarding who and how to target, are reached, how agency budgets are allocated and spent, how effective surveillance actions were, etc. While there may be justified security based arguments to not disclose the full extent of the state's surveillance activities, however this cloak of secrecy may be used illegally and in an unauthorized manner to achieve ends more harmful to citizen rights than the maintenance of security and order in the society.

Surveillance and interception/collection of communications data can take place under different legal processes in different countries, ranging from court-ordered requests of specified data from telecommunications companies to broad executive requests sent under regimes or regulatory frameworks requiring the disclosure of information by telecom companies on a pro-active basis. However, it is an open secret that data collection often takes place without due process or under non-legal circumstances.

It is widely believed that transparency is a critical step towards the creation of mechanisms for increased accountability through which law enforcement and government agencies access communications data. It is the first step in the process of starting discussions and an informed public debate regarding how the state undertakes activities of surveillance, monitoring and interception of communications and data. Since 2010, a large number of ICT companies have begun to publish transparency reports on the extent that governments request their user data as well as requirements to remove content. However, governments themselves have not been very forthcoming in providing such detailed information on surveillance programs which is necessary for an informed debate on this issue.[1] Although some countries currently report limited information on their surveillance activities, e.g. the U.S. Department of Justice publishes an annual Wiretap Report (U.S. Courts, 2013a), and the United Kingdom publishes the Interception of Communications Commissioner Annual Report (May, 2013), which themselves do not present a complete picture, however even such limited measures are unheard of in a country such as India.

It is obvious that Governments can provide a greater level of transparency regarding the limits in place on the freedom of expression and privacy than transparency reports by individual companies. Company transparency reports can only illuminate the extent to which any one company receives requests and how that company responds to them. By contrast, government transparency reports can provide a much greater perspective on laws that can potentially restrict the freedom of expression or impact privacy by illustrating the full extent to which requests are made across the ICT industry. [2]

In India, the courts and the laws have traditionally recognized the need for transparency and derive it from the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed in our Constitution. This need coupled with a sustained campaign by various organizations finally fructified into the passage of the Right to Information Act, 2005, (RTI Act) which amongst other things also places an obligation on the sate to place its documents and records online so that the same may be freely available to the public. In light of this law guaranteeing the right to information, the citizens of India have the fundamental right to know what the Government is doing in their name. The free flow of information and ideas informs political growth and the freedom of speech and expression is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, it acts as a safety valve. People are more ready to accept the decisions that go against them if they can in principle seem to influence them. The Supreme Court of India is of the view that the imparting of information about the working of the government on the one hand and its decision affecting the domestic and international trade and other activities on the other is necessary, and has imposed an obligation upon the authorities to disclose information.[3]

The Supreme Court, in Namit Sharma v. Union of India,[4] while discussing the importance of transparency and the right to information has held:

"The Right to Information was harnessed as a tool for promoting development; strengthening the democratic governance and effective delivery of socio-economic services. Acquisition of information and knowledge and its application have intense and pervasive impact on the process of taking informed decision, resulting in overall productivity gains .


Government procedures and regulations shrouded in the veil of secrecy do not allow the litigants to know how their cases are being handled. They shy away from questioning the officers handling their cases because of the latters snobbish attitude. Right to information should be guaranteed and needs to be given real substance. In this regard, the Government must assume a major responsibility and mobilize skills to ensure flow of information to citizens. The traditional insistence on secrecy should be discarded."

Although these statements were made in the context of the RTI Act the principle which they try to illustrate can be understood as equally applicable to the field of state sponsored surveillance. Though Indian intelligence agencies are exempt from the RTI Act, it can be used to provide limited insight into the scope of governmental surveillance. This was demonstrated by the Software Freedom Law Centre, who discovered via RTI requests that approximately 7,500 - 9,000 interception orders are sent on a monthly basis.[5]

While it is true that transparency alone will not be able to eliminate the barriers to freedom of expression or harm to privacy resulting from overly broad surveillance,, transparency provides a window into the scope of current practices and additional measures are needed such as oversight and mechanisms for redress in cases of unlawful surveillance. Transparency offers a necessary first step, a foundation on which to examine current practices and contribute to a debate on human security and freedom.[6]

It is no secret that the current framework of surveillance in India is rife with malpractices of mass surveillance and instances of illegal surveillance. There have been a number of instances of illegal and/or unathorised surveillance in the past, the most scandalous and thus most well known is the incident where a woman IAS officer was placed under surveillance at the behest of Mr. Amit Shah who is currently the president of the ruling party in India purportedly on the instructions of the current prime minister Mr. Narendra Modi.[7] There are also a number of instances of private individuals indulging in illegal interception and surveillance; in the year 2005, it was reported that Anurag Singh, a private detective, along with some associates, intercepted the telephonic conversations of former Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh. They allegedly contacted political leaders and media houses for selling the tapped telephonic conversation records. The interception was allegedly carried out by stealing the genuine government letters and forging and fabricating them to obtain permission to tap Amar Singh's telephonic conversations. [8] The same individual was also implicated for tapping the telephone of the current finance minister Mr. Arun Jaitely.[9]

It is therefore obvious that the status quo with regard to the surveillance mechanism in India needs to change, but this change has to be brought about in a manner so as to make state surveillance more accountable without compromising its effectiveness and addressing legitimate security concerns. Such changes cannot be brought about without an informed debate involving all stakeholders and actors associated with surveillance, however the basic minimum requirement for an "informed" debate is accurate and sufficient information about the subject matter of the debate. This information is severely lacking in the public domain when it comes to state surveillance activities - with most data points about state surveillance coming from news items or leaked information. Unless the state becomes more transparent and gives information about its surveillance activities and processes, an informed debate to challenge and strengthen the status quo for the betterment of all parties cannot be started.

Current State of Affairs

Surveillance laws in India are extremely varied and have been in existence since the colonial times, remnants of which are still being utilized by the various State Police forces. However in this age of technology the most important tools for surveillance exist in the digital space and it is for this reason that this paper shall focus on an analysis of surveillance through interception of telecommunications traffic, whether by tracking voice calls or data. The interception of telecommunications actually takes place under two different statutes, the Telegraph Act, 1885 (which deals with interception of calls) as well as the Information Technology Act, 2000 (which deals with interception of data).

Currently, the telecom surveillance is done as per the procedure prescribed in the Rules under the relevant sections of the two statutes mentioned above, viz. Rule 419A of the Telegraph Rules, 1951 for surveillance under the Telegraph Act, 1885 and the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009 for surveillance under the Information Technology Act, 2000. These Rules put in place various checks and balances and try to ensure that there is a paper trail for every interception request. [10] The assumption is that the generation of a paper trail would reduce the number of unauthorized interception orders thus ensuring that the powers of interception are not misused. However, even though these checks and balances exist on paper as provided in the laws, there is not enough information in the public domain regarding the entire mechanism of interception for anyone to make a judgment on whether the system is working or not.

As mentioned earlier, currently the only sources of information on interception that are available in the public domain are through news reports and a handful of RTI requests which have been filed by various activists.[11] The only other institutionalized source of information on surveillance in India is the various transparency reports brought out by companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, etc.

Indeed, Google was the first major corporation to publish a transparency report in 2010 and has been updating its report ever since. The latest data that is available for Google is for the period between January, 2015 to June, 2015 and in that period Google and Youtube together received 3,087 requests for data which asked for information on 4,829 user accounts from the Indian Government. Out of these requests Google only supplied information for 44% of the requests.[12] Although Google claims that they "review each request to make sure that it complies with both the spirit and the letter of the law, and we may refuse to produce information or try to narrow the request in some cases", it is not clear why Google rejected 56% of the requests. It may also be noted that the number of requests for information that Google received from India were the fifth highest amongst all the other countries on which information was given in the Transparency Report, after USA, Germany, France and the U.K.

Facebook's transparency report for the period between January, 2015 to June, 2015 reveals that Facebook received 5,115 requests from the Indian Government for 6,268 user accounts, out of which Facebook produced data in 45.32% of the cases.[13] Facebook's transparency report claims that they respond to requests relating to criminal cases and "Each and every request we receive is checked for legal sufficiency and we reject or require greater specificity on requests that are overly broad or vague." However, even in Facebook's transparency report it is unclear why 55.68% of the requests were rejected.

The Yahoo transparency report also gives data from the period between January 1, 2015 to June 30, 2015 and reveals that Yahoo received 831 requests for data, which related to 1,184 user accounts from the Indian Government. The Yahoo report is a little more detailed and also reveals that 360 of the 831 requests were rejected by Yahoo, however no details are given as to why the requests were rejected. The report also specifies that in 63 cases, no data was found by Yahoo, in 249 cases only non content data[14] was disclosed while in 159 cases content [15] was disclosed. The Yahoo report also claims that "We carefully scrutinize each request to make sure that it complies with the law, and we push back on those requests that don't satisfy our rigorous standards."

While the Vodafone Transparency Report gives information regarding government requests for data in other jurisdictions, [16] it does not give any information on government requests in India. This is because Vodafone interprets the provisions contained in Rule 25(4) of the IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009 (Interception Rules) and Rule 11 of the IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Monitoring and Collecting Traffic Data or Information) Rules, 2009 as well as Rule 419A(19) of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1954 which require service providers to maintain confidentiality/secrecy in matters relating to interception, as being a legal prohibition on Vodafone to reveal such information.

Apart from the four major companies discussed above, there are a large number of private corporations which have published transparency reports in order to acquire a sense of trustworthiness amongst their customers. Infact, the Ranking Digital Rights Project has been involved in ranking some of the biggest companies in the world on their commitment to accountability and has brought out the Ranking Digital Rights 2015 Corporate Accountability Index that has analysed a representative group of 16 companies "that collectively hold the power to shape the digital lives of billions of people across the globe".

Suggestions on Transparency

It is clear from the discussions above, as well as a general overview of various news reports on the subject, that telecom surveillance in India is shrouded in secrecy and it appears that a large amount of illegal and unauthorized surveillance is taking place behind the protection of this veil of secrecy. If the status quo continues, then it is unlikely that any meaningful reforms would take place to bring about greater accountability in the area of telecom surveillance. It is imperative, for any sort of changes towards greater accountability to take place, that we have enough information about what exactly is happening and for that we need greater transparency since transparency is the first step towards greater accountability.

Transparency Reports

In very simplistic terms transparency, in anything, can best be achieved by providing as much information about that thing as possible so that there are no secrets left. However, it would be naïve to say that all information about interception activities can be made public on the altar of the principle of transparency, but that does not mean that there should be no information at all on interception. One of the internationally accepted methods of bringing about transparency in interception mechanisms, which is increasingly being adopted by both the private sector as well as governments, is to publish Transparency Reports giving various details of interception while keeping security concerns in mind. The two types of transparency reports that we require in India and what that would entail is briefly discussed below:

By the Government

The problem with India's current regime for interception is that the entire mechanism appears more or less adequate on paper with enough checks and balances involved in it to prevent misuse of the allotted powers. However, because the entire process is veiled in secrecy, nobody knows exactly how good or how rotten the system has become and whether it is working to achieve its intended purposes. It is clear that the current system of interception and surveillance being followed by the government has some flaws, as can be gathered from the frequent news articles which talk about incidents of illegal surveillance. However, without any other official or more reliable sources of information regarding surveillance activities these anecdotal pieces of evidence are all we have to shape the debate regarding surveillance in India. It is only logical then that the debate around surveillance, which is informed by such sketchy and unreliable news reports will automatically be biased against the current mechanism since the newspapers would also only be interested in reporting the scandalous and the extraordinary incidents. For example, some argue that the government undertakes mass surveillance, while others argue that India only carries out targeted surveillance, but there is not enough information publicly available for a third party to support or argue against either claim. It is therefore necessary and highly recommended that the government start releasing a transparency report such as the one's brought out by the United States and the UK as mentioned above.

There is no need for a separate department or authority just to make the transparency report and this task could probably be performed in-house by any department, but considering the sector involved, it would perhaps be best if the Department of Telecommunications is given the responsibility to bring out a transparency report. These transparency reports should contain certain minimum amount of data for them to be an effective tool in informing the public discourse and debate regarding surveillance and interception. The report needs to strike a balance between providing enough information so that an informed analysis can be made of the effectiveness of the surveillance regime without providing so much information so as to make the surveillance activities ineffective. Below is a list of suggestions as to what kind of data/information such reports should contain:

  • Reports should contain data regarding the number of interception orders that have been passed. This statistic would be extremely useful in determining how elaborate and how frequently the state indulges in interception activities. This information would be easily available since all interception orders have to be sent to the Review Committee set up under Rule 419A of the Telegraph Rules, 1954.
  • The Report should contain information on the procedural aspects of surveillance including the delegation of powers to different authorities and individuals, information on new surveillance schemes, etc. This information would also be available with the Ministry of Home Affairs since it is a Secretary or Joint Secretary level officer in the said Ministry which is supposed to authorize every order for interception.
  • The report should contain an aggregated list of reasons given by the authorities for ordering interception. This information would reveal whether the authorities are actually ensuring legal justification before issuing interception or are they just paying lip service to the rules to ensure a proper paper trail. Since every order of interception has to be in writing, the main reasons for interception can easily be gleaned from a perusal of the orders.
  • It should also reveal the percentage of cases where interception has actually found evidence of culpability or been successful in prevention of criminal activities. This one statistic would itself give a very good review of the effectiveness of the interception regime. Granted that this information may not be very easily obtainable, but it can be obtained with proper coordination with the police and other law enforcement agencies.
  • The report should also reveal the percentage of order that have been struck down by the Review Committee as not following the process envisaged under the various Rules. This would give a sense of how often the Rules are being flouted while issuing interception orders. This information can easily be obtained from the papers and minutes of the meetings of the Review Committee.
  • The report should also state the number of times the Review Committee has met in the period being reported upon. The Review Committee is an important check on the misuse of powers by the authorities and therefore it is important that the Review Committee carries out its activities in a diligent manner.

It may be noted here that some provisions of the Telegraph Rules, 1954 especially sub-Rules 17 and 18 of Rule 419A as well as Rules 22, 23(1) and 25 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Monitoring and Collecting Traffic Data or Information) Rules, 2009 may need to be amended so as to make them compliant with the reporting mechanism proposed above.

By the Private Sector

We have already discussed above the transparency reports published by certain private companies. Suffice it to say that reports from private companies should give as much of the information discussed under government reports as possible and/or applicable, since they may not have a large amount of the information that is sought to be published in the government reports such as whether the interception was successful, the reasons for interception, etc. It is important to have ISPs provide such transparency reports as this will provide two different data points for information on interception and the very existence of these private reports may act as a check to ensure the veracity of the government transparency reports.

As in the case of government reports, for the transparency reports of the private sector to be effective, certain provisions of the Telegraph Rules, 1954 and the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Monitoring and Collecting Traffic Data or Information) Rules, 2009, viz. sub-Rules 14, 15 and 19 of Rule 419A of the Telegraph Rules, 1954 and Rules 20, 21, 23(1) and 25 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Monitoring and Collecting Traffic Data or Information) Rules, 2009.

Overhaul of the Review Committee

The Review Committee which acts as a check on the misuse of powers by the competent authorities is a very important cog in the entire process. However, it is staffed entirely by the executive and does not have any members of any other background. Whilst it is probably impractical to have civilian members in the Review Committee which has access to potentially sensitive information, it is extremely essential that the Committee has wider representation from other sectors specially the judiciary. One or two members from the judiciary on the Review Committee would provide a greater check on the workings of the Committee as this would bring in representation from the judicial arm of the State so that the Review Committee does not remain a body manned purely by the executive branch. This could go some ways to ensure that the Committee does not just "rubber stamp" the orders of interception issued by the various competent authorities.


It is not in dispute that there is a need for greater transparency in the government's surveillance activities in order to address the problems associated with illegal and unauthorised interceptions. This paper is not making the case that greater transparency in and by itself will be able to solve the problems that may be associated with the government's currency interception and surveillance regime, however it is not possible to address any problem unless we know the real extent of it. It is essential for an informed debate and discussion that the people participating in the discussion are "informed", i.e. they should have accurate and adequate information regarding the issues which are being discussed. The current state of the debate on interception is rife with individuals using illustrative and anecdotal evidence which, in the absence of any other evidence, they assume to be the norm.

A more transparent and forthcoming state machinery which regularly keeps its citizens abreast of the state of its surveillance regime would be likely to get better suggestions and perhaps less criticisms if it does come out that the checks and balances imposed in the regulations are actually making a difference to check unauthorized interceptions, and if not, then it is the right of the citizens to know about this and ask for reforms.

[1] James Losey, "Surveillance of Communications: A Legitimization Crisis and the Need for Transparency", International Journal of Communication 9(2015), Feature 3450-3459, 2015.

[2] Id.

[4] . Although the judgment was overturned on review, however this observation quoted above would still hold as it has not been specifically overturned.

[6] James Losey, "Surveillance of Communications: A Legitimization Crisis and the Need for Transparency", International Journal of Communication 9 (2015), Feature 3450-3459, 2015.

[10] For a detailed discussion of the Rules of interception please see Policy Paper on Surveillance in India, by Vipul Kharbanda, .

[14] Non-content data (NCD) such as basic subscriber information including the information captured at the time of registration such as an alternate e-mail address, name, location, and IP address, login details, billing information, and other transactional information (e.g., "to," "from," and "date" fields from email headers).

[15] Data that users create, communicate, and store on or through Yahoo. This could include words in a communication (e.g., Mail or Messenger), photos on Flickr, files uploaded, Yahoo Address Book entries, Yahoo Calendar event details, thoughts recorded in Yahoo Notepad or comments or posts on Yahoo Answers or any other Yahoo property.