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Delhi HC issues notice in plea challenging govt’s mass surveillance systems NATGRID, Netra, CMS

The Delhi High Court on Wednesday issued a notice to the Home Ministry, Law Ministry, IT Ministry, Communications Ministry, and Defence Ministry in response to a petition challenging various government surveillance systems such as the Central Monitoring System (CMS), Network Traffic Analysis (NETRA), and National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID). LiveLaw first reported this.

The plea filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) and Delhi-based digital rights group Software Freedom Law Centre India (SFLC.In) sought to permanently stop the execution and operation of the three surveillance projects which enable bulk interception, storage, and analysis of telephone and internet communications. It also prayed the court to direct the formation of an independent oversight authority — judicial or parliamentary — to authorise and review communication interception orders issued by the government. MediaNama has seen a copy of the plea.

Senior Advocate, Prashant Bhushan, appearing for CPIL, argued that the three surveillance projects seek to put in place a 360 degree surveillance mechanism to spy on all citizens, as per a tweet by SFLC.in. He also alleged that the three systems together will be used for surveillance of all types of communications, including WhatsApp messages, as per LiveLaw.

The next hearing on the matter has been scheduled for January 7, 2021.

What are these surveillance systems that CPIL and SFLC.In are challenging?

The Centralised Monitoring System was set up in 2019 to monitor communications on mobile phones, landlines and internet in the country, in order to “strengthen the security environment in the country,” the petition said. With the CMS, the government plans to create a platform that will include all service providers in Delhi, Haryana and Karnataka to aid law enforcement agencies in interception and monitoring of communications.

It will be able to equip government agencies with Direct Electronic Provisioning, Call Data Records (CDR) analysis and data mining to identify the personal information, and in turn it will provide alerts of the target numbers, without  any manual intervention from telecom service providers. The system is operational at Delhi and 21 other Regional Monitoring Centres, according to a response to a question raised in Parliament on 2019, the petition pointed out.

“Under the existing legal framework’ there is an insufficient oversight mechanism to authorize and review the interception and monitoring orders issued by the state agencies,” CPIL and SFLC.in said in the plea. Citing Right To Information responses, the plea said that on an average, around 7500-9000 telephone-interception orders were issued by the government, every month, between 2013 and 2014.

“Such huge number of interception  orders when issued by the Central and State Authorities in a  massive and disproportionate scale, can only be said to be issued in a mechanical manner without application of mind thereby exceeding the adequate procedural safeguards and oversight mechanisms under Indian Telegraph Act’ 1885 and  Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Rules 2007,” the petition further alleged. This is also violative of the right to privacy, it argued.

The Network Traffic Analysis (NETRA) is an internet monitoring system which can detect suspicious words like ‘attack’, ‘bomb’, ‘blast’ or ‘kill’ in real time on social media, emails, instant messaging services, blogs and others. It aims to monitor voice traffic on services like Skype, and facilitate setting up of a national internet scanning & coordination centre, similar to ones present in the United States, United Kingdom, China and others.

NATGRID aims to link multiple public and private databases together, and make this data available to intelligence agencies. Its mandate is to automate the existing manual processes for collation of intelligence information by connecting over 21 data sources like telecommunication, banking, airlines etc.

The project has seen multiple delays in launching, and several details about the project remain unknown, especially after it was placed outside of the purview of the Right to Information Act in 2011. Read more about it here.

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