Critical concerns

Vulnerable Indian

Print edition : July 12, 2013

Rajeev Chandrasekhar: More privacy is needed than government surveillance. Photo: Kamal Narang

RAJEEV CHANDRASEKHAR, a Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka, has been involved in the debate over Internet governance. Responding to the recent exposes relating to the alleged violations of privacy of citizens of many countries, including India, as a result of the PRISM project, he has written to Shivshankar Menon, National Security Adviser (NSA) in the Prime Minister’s Office.

He is of the opinion that India needs to engage with the United States to uncover the truth about PRISM. He asserts that there are major procedural and legislative weaknesses within India facing its citizens. He calls for a movement towards greater privacy and less surveillance notwithstanding the conduct of other governments.

Given below are his views on what he thinks are critical concerns:

“The Indian government needs to reach out to the U.S. government to uncover the actual facts of and the truth behind the allegations relating to any compromise on the privacy of Indian citizens. It needs to go beyond media speculation, especially since there is considerable confusion, with allegations of privacy violations on the one hand and denial by several U.S. Internet and social media companies of having any role in the PRISM project, except complying with legal direction, on the other.

“While there are wide-ranging reports regarding the PRISM project, there is a matched confusion as to whether its implementation was done under proper procedure and U.S. law or whether it was an extrajudicial act. At one level, India seems to figure in the top five countries on the list of surveillance—based on a report—and it seems there are violations of privacy from several other major U.S. social media and ICT [information and communications technology] corporations, though these companies have denied participating in any illegal project. In fact, there are now reports that several U.S. companies are asking the U.S. government to allow them to publicise more details about any surveillance activities to enable greater transparency.

“I have also cautioned the National Security Adviser and, through him, the security agencies in India, to conduct a comprehensive review of the administrative processes and legislation relating to surveillance, interception and privacy protection. I explained to him that the Indian citizen remains extremely vulnerable on the home front where his privacy is concerned, and this could be the perfect opportunity to have a wide dialogue across government, telecom service providers, ISPs [Internet service providers], technical experts and citizens groups to audit, review and improve on the privacy processes and legislation within India.

“The NSA has responded to and has assured me that the government will do everything to maintain the highest levels of data protection and personal privacy while meeting the needs of national security in the cyber security field.

“The government should not follow any bad precedent that may come to light if the allegations relating to the PRISM project are found to be true. This would be a wrong time for the government to start competing with other governments for more data, more surveillance and more intrusive technologies and processes into citizens’ private lives. Instead, the government must strengthen privacy protection and data collection strictly keeping in mind the Supreme Court’s directions and comprehensively review any loopholes in the legislation. This is a time for more privacy and stronger laws to protect consumers, rather than more government, in competition with other governments to increase the surveillance umbrella.

“I have also reminded the government to avoid any attempts at using this opportunity to revive India’s proposal of a U.N.-based, 50-government Internet oversight and control mechanism—United Nations Committee on Internet Related Policies (UN-CIRP). India’s proposal at the U.N. in October 2011, seeking the formation of such a body, was perhaps one of the worst ideas paraded by the government. I opposed the proposal as it is against India’s character and Constitution. The plan to subject the Internet to a 50-member intergovernmental body damaged India’s reputation as a multi-ethnic, multicultural and democratic society with an open economy and an abiding culture for pluralism. It was against everything that we stand for. Further, the proposal was against the interest of 800 million mobile and 100 million Internet users and counting.

“The proposal was about control, and control in the hands of those who lack competence. Without question, this proposal is about controlling the Internet. Or else, the government would have sought an option to expand the multi-stakeholder arrangement or perhaps even argued that the government should get an equal seat along with the other stakeholders. But to alter an arrangement that has added 2.5 billion Internet users so far with half a million being added each day, and moving it to government control, is about controlling the Internet. Worse still, even with the best intentions, the bureaucrats are ill qualified to handle this job.”

As told to T.K. Rajalakshmi

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