Point out law and procedure for monitoring, interception of phones: HC to Centre
New Delhi: The Delhi High Court Tuesday allowed the Central government to file a “detailed affidavit” on a PIL alleging “generalised surveillance” of the citizens by the authorities and sought details of procedure in relation to the monitoring and interception of phones.
“Time to file detailed affidavit granted to Union of India. Point out in detail the law and procedure followed by the Union of India for monitoring and interception of phones,” said a bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jyoti Singh which listed the matter for next hearing on September 30.
The bench was hearing a PIL by two societies which have claimed that citizens’ right to privacy was being “endangered” by surveillance programmes like the Centralised Monitoring System (CMS), Network Traffic Analysis (NETRA) and National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID).
The plea by Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) and Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) has contended that these surveillance systems allow central and state law enforcement agencies to intercept and monitor all telecommunications in bulk which is an infringement of the fundamental right to privacy of individuals.
Appearing for the NGOs, advocate Prashant Bhushan urged the court to constitute a committee under the aegis of a retired judge of the high court or the Supreme Court to “find out what the government was doing” and that the government reply in the present case was “bald”.
“They filed an affidavit saying everything is in accordance with law. Government’s reply is a bald reply,” he stated.
He also submitted that the issue of alleged targeted surveillance by Pegasus software was pending consideration before the apex court and that the issue in the instant petition was more than that of phone tapping.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta asserted that all monitoring activities were being carried out as per the law and with requisite permissions.
“This is not a public interest issue. I will look into it and file an affidavit. Whatever we find to be significant (in the petition), we will reply. Other things, we will ignore,” he told the court.
In its affidavit, the Centre has said that no blanket permission has been granted to any agency for interception or monitoring or decryption of any messages or information under the three surveillance programmes i.e. the CMS, NETRA and NATGRID.
The government defended the need for the surveillance systems saying that “grave threats to the country from terrorism, radicalisation, cybercrime, drug cartels, etc, cannot be understated or ignored” and it was imperative, therefore, to have a robust mechanism “for speedy collection of actionable intelligence”.
The two societies have contended that under the existing legal framework there is an “insufficient oversight mechanism” to authorise and review the interception and monitoring orders issued by the state agencies.
Directions are thus sought to the Centre to “permanently stop” the execution and the operation of the surveillance projects, CMS, NETRA and NATGRID, which allows for bulk collection and analysis of personal data, they submitted.
According to the petition CMS is a surveillance system under which all forms of communications, like telephone calls, Whatsapp messages and e-mails, are intercepted and monitored.
NETRA, developed by the Centre for Artificial Intelligence (CAIR)– a lab under Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), monitors internet traffic for the use of keywords such as attack, bomb, blast or kill in tweets or status updates on social media platforms, emails or blogs, the plea has said.
The petition has claimed that NETRA is “essentially a massive dragnet surveillance system designed specifically to monitor the nation’s Internet networks including voice over internet traffic passing through software programs such as Skype or Google Talk besides write-ups in tweets, status updates, emails, instant messaging transcripts, internet calls, blogs and forums.”
NATGRID, the plea claimed, is “a counter-terrorism initiative to be undertaken on public-private partnership that will utilise technologies like Big Data and advanced analytics to study and analyze huge amounts of data and metadata’ related to individuals from various stand-alone databases belonging to various agencies and ministries of the Indian government”.
Under the NATGRID system, tax and bank account details, credit card transactions, visa and immigration records and itineraries of rail and air travel would be monitored, the plea has said.
Bhushan had earlier argued before the court that the Supreme Court has held that financial details and travel plans of citizens cannot be intercepted or monitored except in larger public interest and in accordance with the laws.
However, according to a reply received under RTI 7,500 to 9,000 permissions were being routinely granted every month for intercepting and monitoring communications of citizens and the committee which is to review such permissions sits only once in two months, he told the high court.
The plea has sought the constitution of a permanent independent oversight body, judicial or parliamentary, for issuing and reviewing lawful interception and monitoring orders/warrants under the enabling provisions of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and the Information Technology Act, 2000.