- - Sunday, March 10, 2019

VARANASI, India — A major privacy debate has erupted in the world’s largest democracy, with critics threatening a major legal battle over a decree by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi allowing police, tax officials and other government agencies to monitor personal electronic devices without a court order.

The government, citing security concerns, issued the decree late last year. It requires all Indians to hand over their computers, tablets and mobile phones without explanation or subpoena, or face up to seven years in jail.

Lawyers, journalists, civil rights advocates and opposition political groups are protesting the “draconian” decree. They say the government is using security as a pretext to suppress dissent and to keep a hold on power.

Fueling the anger is the timing: Mr. Modi faces his first official test of voter support in April and May for the first time since his election five years ago.

“This order is a direct hit on an individual’s right to privacy. The order simply [means] that the individual’s personal data is not personal anymore,” said Lenin Raghuvanshi, a civil rights advocate and a founding member of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights based in Varanasi, in northern India. “You are constantly under watch.

“The order is trying to tell people that they cannot criticize government motives and policies,” he said. “Moreover, the order is trying to kill dissent, a fundamental right, among individuals.”

Leaders of the Indian National Congress, the country’s major opposition political party, say the measure is meant to keep Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power.

“The government is basically insecure … and trying to control the narrative,” said Priyanka Chaturvedi, a national spokeswoman for the party. “They want to listen to what people are communicating and taking note if they are against the current government and its various policies.”

Government officials say the decree reflects concern about national security. That concern that has been underscored by recent terrorist attacks and soaring tensions with Pakistan over violence in the divided Kashmir region. On Feb. 14, 49 Indian soldiers died in a terrorist attack in Kashmir, raising global fears of another clash between the nuclear-armed rivals.

“We respect people’s privacy, our government respects democracy, but we will not compromise on national security,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, who as minister of electronics and information technology leads one of the 10 agencies that was granted the expanded surveillance power. “This [government order] is a robust mechanism, fully accountable, in the interest of India’s national security.”

Mr. Prasad said the Ministry of Home Affairs will approve every case of surveillance, but that precaution has done little to silence critics.

Supreme Court showdown

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting at the Supreme Court of India for an interim stay on the surveillance program. Opponents are hopeful that the court will strike down the decree as a violation of privacy rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. The high court, citing a violation of privacy rights, ruled in September against a mandatory biometric government ID that would be required to open bank accounts and use other basic services.

Even so, the Supreme Court in January refused to hear an urgent petition against the surveillance order filed by the Internet Freedom Foundation, joined by other civil rights and advocacy groups, lawyers and politicians. Still, the court formally asked the Modi government to justify its position regarding its increasingly aggressive surveillance program.

In its affidavit to the justices this month, the government justified the snooping guidelines by citing “grave threats to the country from terrorism, radicalization, cross-border terrorism, cyber crime, organized crime, drug cartels” that “cannot be understated or ignored.”

“This is a legitimate state interest,” according to the plea.

Apar Gupta, executive director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, said the order was too broad in its language and predicted that the court would strike it down.

“The order has a strong word — interception — in regard to digital monitoring,” he said. “Interception also means that they can redirect the traffic anywhere they want. They could trick you in entering your email login details at a proxy site and gather all your personal communications from there.”

Cyber and technology law analysts said the decree is also meant to help the government crack encryption methods on modern telecommunications and computing devices.

“Earlier, the Indian agencies did not have that sort of expertise to break the encryption on their own, and now they do not have to develop that expertise,” said Salman Waris, a cyber and tech lawyer. “They have this order to ask for and process data.”

For years, Indians have been using encryption-based communication platforms including WhatsApp and Telegram. To monitor these communications, the government used to need a court order, much harder to obtain after a privacy law took effect in 2017.

“Now, the decree removes the legal roadblock for mass surveillance,” said Mr. Waris, who dismissed the government’s assurance that it would seek special approval orders for every case. “They have empowered these agencies, so now it will be easy for them to get decryption keys without court orders.”

“There is a huge difference between what they are saying and what is the reality,” he said. “Now, there is no administrative review or supervision of any data interception case. They can do whatever they want to.”

Critics warn that the new policies will lead to self-censorship among journalists and civil rights advocates as well as scholars, lawyers and others, for fear of what the government may find on their personal devices.

“The government is snooping on every single citizen of the country, and they are giving the excuse that this is to prevent terrorism,” said Anand Swaroop Verma, an activist with the Committee Against Assault on Journalists (CAAJ), who worries about the exposure of his communications with sources. “They are turning the country into a surveillance state or, worse, a police state. These agencies can come through your doors, seize your phones and laptops, and use the data stores in various ways against you.”

Still, Mr. Modi can count on some popular support for the idea as security issues loom ahead of the spring vote.

“With these steps, India’s enemies will think many times before laying a hand on the country,” said Ravi Kumar Mishra, a 39-year-old contractor in construction in Lucknow, in northern India. “The government is doing the right thing by implementing these programs. The people who are raising objections are the ones angry about Modi’s popularity.”

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