TOP SECRET: MHA Refuses to reveal total number of snooping requests
On 20th December 2018, the Cyber and Information Security Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued an order which authorises ten security and intelligence agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource.
We called to attention the risks this poses to our online privacy saying that it enables surveillance without any transparency or oversight. It lacks any meaningful safeguards. These arguments are at the center of the case filed by IFF which is challenging the legality of the digital surveillance system before the Supreme Court of India.
In order to get to the bottom of this order and do something about it, IFF filed six RTIs seeking answers to the following rather basic questions:
- How many times has the government used its powers for interception?
- How many agencies have been authorized to intercept, monitor or decrypt data
- The names and the directions provided to the abovementioned agencies.
- Date, time and duration of meetings conducted by the Review Committee.
- How many times has the government received requests from different agencies seeking interception? (a) Number of requests denied. (b) Number of requests approved.
- How many times has an order been issued to prevent any offence which affects the sovereignty, integrity, defence or security of the state?Number of times order issued to investigate into an offence.
According to us, these are very reasonable queries which help us understand how surveillance practices are implemented in India. Their disclosure is primarily to infer broad operational trends and implement safeguards and they would in no way impact national security.
Well, to our disappointment all six RTIs were rejected. The grounds cited are sections 8(1)(a), 8(1)(g) and 8(1)(h) of the RTI Act 2005 on the grounds that ‘Disclosure of information related to lawful interception/phone tapping/monitor or decrypt is exempted’. This basically means that the government is unwilling to tell us who has access to all our private data and why they have access to it. If anything this reply confirmed, it was the complete secrecy and lack of oversight in digital surveillance by the Government of our personal data.
Next steps? We will be filing an appeal against this denial and pursuing these RTIs to their logical conclusion.
We would also like to indicate that RTI Activist, Mr. Venkatesh Nayak (Coordinator, Access to Information, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative) has filed similar RTIs and received a similar rejection. He has recently penned a legal analysis on it at the Leaflet.
Link to documents
1. RTIs filed with the Ministry of Home Affairs on 28.11.2018 (link)
2. Denial by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 29.01.2019 (link)
(This post is authored by Tanvi Vipra is an intern at IFF. The RTI's were drafted and filed by Sai Vinod, Advocate).