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.

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