Sunday 8 December 2013

‘Misuse of surveillance pervasive in India’ (Sunday Guardian)

MADHAV NALAPAT  New Delhi | 7th Dec 2013
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
ither directly or through unofficial proxies, there is widespread officially-inspired surveillance for personal and political reasons in India, say officials dealing with such matters. Reacting to news reports about the placing of a lady architect under 24/7 surveillance, a senior official claimed that such snooping "was the rule rather than the exception" across the states and at the central level. He pointed out that "as yet, there are no accepted codes of conduct binding intelligence agencies and their police auxiliaries in the collection of information" on human targets. According to him, "the prohibition of misuse in laws such as the Telegraph Act is followed only in the breach". A junior officer pointed out that "technology has made such legislation obsolete, in an age where a mobile phone can record both images as well as sound".
A senior official claimed that "agencies achieve deniability by requisitioning the services of private detective agencies, who are usually paid through unaccounted funds". He warned that "cash for such purposes is easily available, either from available funds or by leaning on a businessman to produce the cash". Fulfilling such requests for data collection from government officials "gives a private agency immunity, which it then uses to conduct similar snooping, this time on behalf of private clients". According to a junior colleague, "telephone surveillance of certain opposition leaders, which got exposed some months ago, was carried out by individuals who regularly conduct such activities on the verbal request of police and intelligence agencies". He pointed out that "should the private individuals (charged with the surveillance of opposition politicians) reveal the close connection between them and officials, it may prove embarrassing."
The War on Terror declared twelve years ago by President George W. Bush "has become the perfect cover for a range of snooping activities, much of which has nothing to do with terrorism", a senior official claimed, adding that "in India, much of the requests for surveillance have a political or personal motive", and are either "designed to find out incriminating evidence against a target individual or to find out whether that individual has damaging information against a VIP politician or high official. "There is almost no application of mind before such requests get sanctioned, even in cases where proper procedures are followed", a senior official pointed out, saying that "This can be seen from the fact that permission is given immediately after a request for surveillance has been made". Such sanctions are justified "on the vaguest grounds, detailing anonymous complaints or unverified information" used as grounds for sanction. A colleague added that "an interesting point is that while there is a list of target individuals, there is also a much smaller list, of persons who it is informally forbidden to track". These are usually close personal friends of VVIPs, who therefore get enabled to carry out whatever activities they are engaged in beyond the radar of the official agencies presumed to be tracking such activities
A senior official said that "unless it be enforced that only orders in writing will be followed, such misuse of official machinery as well as auxiliaries for personal and political purposes will go on". A junior officer said that "there ought to be public hearings on the use of intelligence agencies in situations where terrorism and subversion is ruled out". The US is known to collect business-related data through its lock on email servers, which may then get used to give an unfair competitive advantage to US and allied companies against their competitors in South America and Asia. Both officials said that should there be a discussion in Parliament on the Gujarat Snoopgate, "it ought to be extended to the entire question of misuse of police and intelligence agencies across the country for personal and political (rather than national) purposes."

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