Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India

Sudha Nagaraj Bharadwaj, Journalist | 5/13/2014 | 32 comments

Sudha Nagaraj Bharadwaj
Internet surveillance in India is turning really fierce. A Facebook transparency report reveals that the social network removed 4,765 pieces of content originating in India in the second half of 2013. India, in fact, had more content removed than any other country. Turkey (2,014), Pakistan (162), Israel (113), Germany (84), and France (80) were also at the forefront of Facebook censorship.

Facebook started publicizing censorship requests from governments last year. The network says on its site:

When governments believe that something on the Internet violates their laws, they may contact companies like Facebook to restrict access to that content. Requests are scrutinized to determine if the specified content does indeed violate local laws. If, after a thorough legal analysis, we determine content appears to violate local law, then we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory.

However, Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch, made it clear in a blog post that content is not removed from the service entirely, unless it also violates the network's community standards. Despite Facebook's contention that requests do not always translate into censorship, the number of pieces being pulled off the network is on the rise.

E2 India has discussed India's censorship of social media in the past. Worried by the growing trend, Facebook joined with companies such as Google, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, and Twitter to reform government surveillance in December. However, the number of programs designed to monitor Internet, telephony, and other forms of communications in India are on the rise, ostensibly to pre-empt crime and acts of terror.

The latest initiative is the Network Traffic Analysis or Netra system. This system, set to be activated soon, has been developed by the Centre for Artificial Intelligence & Robotics, a part of the Home Ministry's Defense Research and Development Organization.

Netra (which means "eye" in Sanskrit) can track dubious voice and text traffic by weeding out words like attack, bomb, blast, and kill. It can sift through millions of tweets, status updates, emails, instant messaging transcripts, Internet calls, blogs, and forum discussions in a matter of seconds.

Do not let your tongue loose when you are on Skype or Google Talk -- or even when you send emails. The government has proposed giving several government agencies access to the system. The top security agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau and the Cabinet Secretariat, would be allotted 300 GB of storage space for intercepted Internet traffic. An extra 100 GB would be assigned to other law enforcement agencies.

In another controversial measure, the government has asked telecom operators to link their Lawful Interception System to the Central Monitoring System (CMS), popularly called India's answer to the NSA's Prism program. When connected with the Telephone Call Interception System, the CMS helps to monitor voice calls, SMS and MMS, fax communications on landlines, CDMA, video calls, GSM, and 3G networks through a direct automated interception process -- bypassing service providers. Security agencies with access to this data are equipped to activate direct electronic provisioning, filters, and alerts on the target numbers. They can also access Call Details Records and deploy analysis and data mining tools to learn the personal information associated with target numbers.

Internet monitoring is also part of several other security schemes, including the soon-to-be-launched National Intelligence Grid, which will cost more than $500 million. It will give 11 intelligence and investigative agencies real-time access to 21 citizen data sources, including police departments, banks, tax authorities, passport offices, vehicle registrations, and telecom companies to track terror activities.

Another surveillance scheme that is progressing, though at a snail's pace, is the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems. It aims to link 14,000 police stations across the country and prepare biometric profiles of criminals. According to authorities, such a system is required to track the growing menace of cybercrime which is replacing conventional crime.

With the government harnessing technology to its advantage and keeping watch on citizens, it is time for online businesses in India and those that do business there to build a policy around the laws there. You need a plan for how you will comply, what you will hand over or delete, and how transparent you will be about your choices. It isn't going to be easy to walk the line between satisfying the government and keeping your customers happy.

View Comments: Oldest First | Newest First | Threaded View
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Nicky48   Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India   5/14/2014 9:29:18 AM
Sudha - great article, thanks.

I never realized that different countries had these censorship rules.
Pedro Gonzales   Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India   5/14/2014 10:12:38 AM
back to 1984
wow.  Such government surveillance is a huge endeavor.  I wonder whether India's citizens aren't bother by such government surveillance.  This has tremendous impact how a person communicates online.  This goes for companies as well that do business in India.  I don't know how CEO would will talking online and knowing that someone is listening on the other side.  Such Monitors could make lots of money through insider trading since they know what is going on at each company. 
zerox203   Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India   5/14/2014 10:47:15 AM
Re: Intelligence Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India
Thanks for this update once again, Sudha. Over the last couple of years (it has been a couple of years already, right?), your posts have given me keen, no-nonense insights into a culture (corporate and otherwise), that's very different from my own, and at the same time very similar. That's the best kind of insight - I'm sure there are plenty of good things to talk about in Indian IT, too, but you sound just like me; pragmatic, worried about how to get your business through the next hurdle, and more concerned with what could go wrong than with what's already going right. I like that.

It is is a bit surreal to hear about the level of government surveillance that goes on in India as you describe it. The programs you describe sound like they're already more invasive than PRISM, and they look to be going even farther in the next couple of years. It's hard to imagine some of these practices being a part of everyday life here in the US or other countries, as some would be flagrantly illegal (although, as we've discovered, that doesn't necessarily stop the gov't), but nevertheless they are for Indian consumers and businesses alike. Is the public outcry about as severe as you would expect, or is there and issue of the general public not having much awareness?
MDMConsult   Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India   5/15/2014 12:49:33 AM
Re: back to 1984
Google and Coalition members fight back to government surveillance and data collected from individuals. The threat to mobile data and NSA surveillance are said to have been cracking down on the misuse of such data.
Rich Krajewski   Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India   5/15/2014 10:56:25 AM
You're kidding, right?
"The top security agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau and the Cabinet Secretariat, would be allotted 300 GB of storage space for intercepted Internet traffic."

You're kidding, right? I can go to Best Buy and get a terrabyte external drive for just a few bucks, but the "top security agencies" will get only 300 GB? Send out 300 GB of gibberish well laced with trigger words, and that should tie up the whole country's intelligence storage capacity.
zerox203   Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India   5/15/2014 12:32:09 PM
Re: You're kidding, right?
@Rich, I had a similar thought, but then it occured to me that 300GB might be the limit for reasons other than storage capacity or cost (at least, cost of hardware). Maybe there's a legal and/or red tape issue involved? Maybe it's to limit misuse of the space and the surveillance; IE if you give them more space, they'll just save everything - this way they actually have to think about it. 300GB is still a lot of space for text. Maybe there's a cost issue involved that's not related to the cost of the space itself. For example, that data has to be tightly secured and encrypted at all times - maybe it would cost too much after a certain point.

In other words, maybe it's a show of good faith to the public, or an appeasement to someone else these organization are beholden to, more than a neccessity. To be sure, as you said, I doubt that the cost of physical storage devices is a bottleneck to any government anywhere, least of in India, the tech capital of the world. Still, there's a bit of reading to be done into that number? How does that stack up against the limits imposed on security organizations in the US? Moreover, do we think any such organizations anywhere in the world are going to stick to such self-imposed limits? After all, who's going to stop them?
Nomi   Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India   5/15/2014 2:41:43 PM
Re: Thanks
@Nicky48 I agree there. I am not sure about these rules and censorship laws. I am not sure what is the criteria of declaring something not suitable as it might concern many groups or even countries. Can anyone elaborate it a bit as I am a bit shaky in that.
Nomi   Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India   5/15/2014 2:45:11 PM
Re: back to 1984
@Pedro I agree with you there. I think we can see a biggest identity lost scam in making. Giving full authority in peeping into the personal lives of others in the name of security we are not going in the right direction. Secondly seeing the surveillance at such a big scale will definitely bear fruit if used properly with strict command and control otherwise...........
Zaius   Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India   5/15/2014 11:29:57 PM
A usual consequence
As the number of internet users grow, its impact also grows. 5 yrs ago, very few cared if something was written on facebook, these days, it matters. There are 'real life' consequences, even some mob might get angry from a single FB news. There needs to be accoutnabitliy on government's part, too. If they just want to hide their own faults all the time, it is a suppression of media ( social media, to be precise). 
Gigi   Internet Surveillance Picks Up Speed In India   5/18/2014 11:47:33 PM
Coded communication
"Netra (which means "eye" in Sanskrit) can track dubious voice and text traffic by weeding out words like attack, bomb, blast, and kill. It can sift through millions of tweets, status updates, emails, instant messaging transcripts, Internet calls, blogs, and forum discussions in a matter of seconds.'

Sudha, when terrorists are using 'codes' for communication, how this software can detect such highlighted words?
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