New Delhi: Indian citizens won’t be shielded from prying by government agencies if the Union home ministry gets its way with the proposed privacy law.
The ministry is insisting that intelligence and law enforcement agencies be kept out of the purview of the proposed Act, and allowed to continue monitoring the activities and carry out electronic surveillance of citizens, officials familiar with the situation said.
The department of personnel and training (DoPT), which is drafting the right to privacy Bill, feels the ministry’s stand flies against the reasoning behind the law, which was aimed at protecting all Indians against any misuse of their personal information, interception of personal communications, unlawful surveillance and unwanted commercial communication.
DoPT worked on these aspects and approached the cabinet secretary to direct the home ministry to deal withprovisions relating to the interception of phone calls and emails—issues on which the department has no practical expertise.
“We are suggesting that the way intelligence and investigation agencies are exempted under schedule 2 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, they should be kept out of the proposed privacy Bill in view of national security,” a senior government official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the matter.
“Even Article 21 that provides right to life and liberty under the Constitution also gives the right to privacy,” this official said. “At the same time, Article 21 also says that no person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. So, the Constitution provides scope of lawful interception. And there have been clear-cut guidelines (spelled out) by the Supreme Court that allow lawful monitoring by the agencies.”
Under schedule 2 of the RTI Act, citizens are restricted from seeking information from agencies such as the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Research and Analysis Wing, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the National Investigation Agency, the National Intelligence Grid and the National Technical Research Organisation.
“We reiterated our earlier position. We do not want the privacy Bill to interfere with intelligence gathering,” said a senior intelligence official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “We are willing to accommodate more safeguards in line with the spirt of the privacy Bill, but we do not want to be placed under the Bill.”
The Supreme Court laid down guidelines for the interception of telephone calls by government agencies in the case People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India in 1997.
Under the guidelines, only Union and state home secretaries are authorized to permit interception of phone calls and emails. There is an oversight committee comprising the cabinet secretary, law secretary and telecom secretary that periodically reviews all authorizations by the home secretaries.
A home ministry official said around 10,000 telephone calls are being monitored at any given point of time.
Aditya Sondhi, a lawyer who has filed a petition before the Karnataka high court, questioning the extra-constitutional status of IB and seeking a legal regime to govern and regulate it, said an integral part of the rule of law is that any surveillance carried out by any agency of the state is backed by the force of law and is duly regulated.
“As such, excluding intelligence agencies from the proposed privacy Bill frustrates the very purpose of the law and could continue to cause violations of the rights of citizens who are at the mercy of such extra-legal operations,” he added.
The government expanded the scope of a proposed data protection Bill to a privacy Act after it came under fire over the leakage of taped conversations between corporate lobbyist Niira Radia, business leaders and journalists. Tata group chairman Ratan Tata objected to the leaking of his personal conversations with Radia and moved the apex court. His privacy petition is pending before the court.
DoPT further extended the data protection Bill to include provisions of lawful interception, surveillance and illegal commercial communication.
“We have come to know the home ministry’s stand on the issue. But their view is against the basic framework of the proposed privacy law. It defies the entire purpose,” another government official said, adding: “What if an agency falters? There has to be some mechanism under which these agencies should be answerable to citizens.”
Both the officials quoted above said the matter will now be put before the cabinet secretary to resolve the issue.
Appu Esthose Suresh contributed to this story.