SC Issues Notice To Govt on Snooping Order, Seeks Reply in 6 Weeks
The Supreme Court on Monday, 14 January, issued a notice to the Centre on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the government’s ‘snooping order’ that allowed 10 agencies to monitor any computer resource.
The apex court said that it will examine the issue and sought the Centre’s reply within six weeks. The order was passed by a bench comprising Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, and Justices Ashok Bhushan and Sanjay Kishan Kaul.
The petitioners include The Internet Freedom Foundation, ML Sharma, Amit Sahni, Mahua Moitra and Shreya Singhal.
Meanwhile, a senior Home Ministry official said on Monday that there has been “zero-change” in the UPA-era snooping policy that was notified by the Centre recently, adding that no new agency has been authorised by the government to intercept information from any computer, PTI reported.
Asked about the PIL challenging the government's move, the official said the ministry will inform the apex court the factual position in the matter.
"There has been zero-change in the snooping policy. The rules for intercepting and monitoring computer data were framed in 2009 when the Congress-led UPA was in power and its new order only notified the designated agencies which can carry out such action," he said.
The order set off a political storm across the country, with the Opposition accusing the government of trying to create a "surveillance state.”
‘Petition is the First Substantive Judicial Challenge on Surveillance Powers’
The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), one of the petitioners, in an official statement said, “We, along with a batch of other petitioners challenged the MHA Notification. IFF has also challenged the principal power of interception for computer systems under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act and the rules made under it.”
According to sources who were present in the courtroom, when the case came up for hearing, CJI Ranjan Gogoi said, “The MHA notification is only in pursuance of a power which was there since 2009. Why were you sleeping since then?"
IFF counsel Mr KV Vishwanath responded, “The powers in 2009 under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act need to be examined now in the light of the Puttaswamy nine-judge bench Right to Privacy judgment.”
“The safeguards and the level of scrutiny is much higher. Also, the Aadhaar judgment now requires judicial oversight in Section 33 of the Aadhaar Act whenever information for national security is shared”, he added.
“Our petition is aimed at greater reforms and oversight of surveillance in India. As the world’s largest digital democracy, with the second highest number of internet users, it seeks greater safeguards and is the first substantive judicial challenge on surveillance powers in our new digital society.”Internet Freedom Foundation, one of the petitioners, in an official statement.
‘Significant Decline in Number of Interceptions’: MHA Official
The Home Ministry official on Monday said no agency has been given blanket power to intercept information from any computer.
According to the official, the number of interception has come down "significantly" since 2014 even though the number of mobile phone connections in the country has gone up and crossed the 100-crore mark.
According to an RTI reply of 2013, there were about 7,500-9,000 orders for interceptions of phones and 300-500 for interceptions of emails being issued per month then by the central government.
The Home Ministry official said that ten agencies mentioned in the notification were already empowered to intercept electronic communications since 2011.
In a strong defence of the notification earlier, the BJP had said the order was legal and that it had adequate safeguards, adding that it was in the interest of national security. BJP had also dubbed the Opposition’s criticism as a “text book case” of speaking without any homework and rejected the allegations of snooping.
The 10 agencies notified under the order were – Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (for Income Tax Department), Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, Directorate of Signal Intelligence (in service areas of J-K, North East and Assam) and Delhi Police commissioner.
(With inputs from ANI and PTI.)