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India introduces Central Monitoring System

Phone calls, texts, emails and even social media all now snoopable

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Privacy advocates are up in arms after the Indian government began quietly rolling out a Rs.4 billion(£47.8m) Central Monitoring System (CMS) designed to give the authorities sweeping access to citizens’ phone calls and internet comms in the name of national security.

The scheme is initially thought to have been conceived as a response to the threat of terrorism, such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks which killed over 150 people and injured hundreds more.

However, the CMS will not only be used by law enforcement but also the tax authorities and offers the government a single point of access to “lawfully” intercept voice calls and texts, emails, social media and the geographical location of individuals, Times of India reported.

Unsurprisingly the authorities have been pretty quiet about the scheme, although it is thought to have begun operation last month.

Its activities are backed up by legislation – specifically the Information Technology Act 2000 and its amendments – which allows the government to “intercept, monitor or decrypt” any info “generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource” if security and public order are at risk.

Activists are worried because they claim India’s privacy laws are not strong enough to protect individuals in the face of such potentially invasive powers.

The “StopICMS” campaign blog argued the following:

[Government of India] GoI mainly asks Google to remove defamatory content. Why is that? Security for themselves, in the name of safety of citizens? Content removal requests have increased by 90 per cent from the GoI. 33 per cent of the requests from the GoI are about either hate speech, defamation or government criticism. Therefore, we can conclude that after implementation of ICMS GoI will primarily use it against “hate speeches” and government criticism.

While the concerns regarding monitoring of mobile phone calls are justified, the CMS won’t be able to monitor the private social media conversations of foreign services like Twitter and Facebook without a court order.

That said, the Indian government under PM Manmohan Singh has taken an increasingly uncompromising stance when it comes to online freedoms, with the stated aim usually to preserve social order and national security or fight "harmful" defamation.

In response to bloody sectarian clashes across the country last August it banned the sending of bulk SMS messages and blocked numerous Twitter accounts and content sharing sites.

In August last year it even blocked one of its own websites after a controversial court ruling on defamatory content. According to NGO Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2012 report, India remains only “partly free” with a score of 39 – a notable decline from the previous year. By contrast the UK’s score was 25 and the US 12. ®

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