India's Central Monitoring System: Security can't come at cost of privacy

During a Google hangout session in June this year, Milind Deora, minister of state for communications and information technology, addressed concerns related to the central monitoring system (CMS). The surveillance project, described as the Indian version of PRISM, will allow the government to monitor online and telephone data of citizens. 

The minister tried to justify the project arguing that the union government will become the sole custodian of citizen’s data which is now accessible to other parties such as telecom operators. But his justification failed to persuade experts who argue that the data is hardly safe because it is held by the government.  And the limited information available about the project has raised serious concerns about its need and the consequences of government snooping on such a mass scale.

Representational image of a computer. Reuters

Representational image of a computer. Reuters

A release by the Press Information Bureau, dated November 26, 2009, is perhaps the only government document related to CMS available in public domain. It merely states that the project will strengthen the security environment in the country. “In the existing system secrecy can be easily compromised due to manual intervention at many stages while in CMS these functions will be performed on secured electronic link and there will be minimum manual intervention.  Interception through CMS will be instant as compared to the existing system which takes a very long time."

One of the primary concerns raised by experts is the sheer lack of public information on the project. So far, there is no official word from the government about which government bodies or agencies will be able to access the data; how will they use this information; what percentage of population will be under surveillance; or how long the data of a citizen will be kept in the record.

“This makes it impossible for India's citizens to assess whether surveillance is the only, or the best, way in which the stated goal can be achieved. Also, citizens cannot gauge whether these measures are proportionate i.e. they are the most effective means to achieve this aim. The possibility of having such a debate is crucial in any democratic country,” said Dr Anja Kovacs, project director at Internet Democracy Project, Delhi based NGO working for online freedom of speech and related issues.

There is also no legal recourse for a citizen whose personal details are being misused or leaked from the central or regional database. Unlike America’s PRISM project under which surveillance orders are approved by courts, CMS does not have any judicial oversight. “This means that the larger ecosystem of checks and balances in which any surveillance should be embedded in a democratic country is lacking. There is an urgent requirement for a strong legal protection of the right to privacy; for judicial oversight of any surveillance; and for parliamentary or judicial oversight of the agencies which will do surveillance. At the moment, all three are missing.” said Kovacs.

Given the use of technology by criminals and terrorists, government surveillance per se, seems inevitable. Almost in every nation, certain chunk of population is always under the scanner of intelligence agencies. However, mass-scale tracking the data of all citizens — not just those who are deemed persons of interest — enabled by the CMS has sparked a public furor. Sunil Abraham, executive director, Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore, compared surveillance with salt in cooking. “A tiny amount is essential but any excess is counterproductive,” he said. “Unlike target surveillance, blanket surveillance increases the probability of false positives. Wrong data analysis will put more number of innocent civilians under suspicion as, by default, their number in the central server is more than those are actually criminals.”

Such blanket surveillance techniques also pose a threat to online business. With all the data going in one central pool, a competitor or a cyber criminal rival can easily tap into private and sensitive information by hacking into the server. “As vulnerabilities will be introduced into Internet infrastructure in order to enable surveillance, it will undermine the security of online transactions,” said Abraham. He notes that the project also can undermine the confidentiality of intellectual property especially pre-grant patents and trade secrets. “Rights-holders will never be sure if their IPR is being stolen by some government in order to prop up national players.”

Every time a surveillance system is exposed or its misuse sparks a debate, governments argue that such programs are required for internal security purposes and to help abort terror attacks. Obama made the same argument after PRISM was revealed to the public. Civil rights groups, on the other hand, argue that security cannot be prioritised by large-scale invasions of privacy especially in a country like India where there is little accountability or transparency. So is there a middle ground that will satisfy both sides?

“Yes, security and privacy can coexist,” said Commander (rtd) Mukesh Saini, former national information security coordinator, government of India, “We can design a system which takes care of national security aspect and yet gains the confidence of the citizens. Secrecy period must not be more than three to four years in such projects. Thereafter who all were snooped and when and why and under whose direction/circumstances must be made public through a website after this time gap."

Kovacs agrees and says the right kind of surveillance program would focus on the needs of the citizen and not the government. “If a contradiction seems to exist between cyber security and privacy online, this is only because we have lost sight of who is supposed to benefit from any security measures. Only if a measure contributes to citizen’s sense of security, can it really be considered a legitimate security measure."


Updated Date: Jul 10, 2013 11:21 AM

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