Is India Really Heading Straight Towards “Surveillance State”?

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“We seem to be moving towards a Surveillance State”.

The above line isn’t fabricated or any way hammy. In fact, The Supreme Court today has agreed to look into the previous report, which was filed by the Central Government. The particular report was aimed at setting up a ‘Social Media Communication Hub‘ in order to audit online data, and make sure that it’s heading straight to “surveillance state”.

The three-judge bench of the top court was headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, comprising of Justice A. M. Khanwilkar and Justice DY Chandrachud. Across the board, a notice was issued to the Union Government, nudged further on a plea by Trinamool Congress (TMC) MLA Mahua Moitra and sought a reply within two weeks.

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“The government wants to tap citizens’ WhatsApp messages. It will be like creating a surveillance state,” – Three-Judge Bench

On June 18, the Apex court turned down the urgent hearing on the plea, seeking to stay a central government move of an upshot, that would collect and analyse online media content.

Going All “Eyes and Ears”

At the very outset of this year, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry came forth with a plan to set up a ‘Social Media Communication Hub’ which would facilitate it in keeping tabs on in-vogue accounts and pocket in relevant feedback on flagship schemes of the Central Government.

According to Ministry, this project will incorporate media persons on a contractual basis to be the “eyes and ears” of the government. They will help the Government both-ways; The media persons will provide real-time updates and take people’s feedback on government’s policies.

The tender document reflects that there’s a need of a specific platform which can collect digital media insights from all social media platforms as well as digital platforms such as news, blogs and incorporate them in a single system which can then provide real-time updates and data.

Recently, the Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) under the ministry, also floated a tender to supply a software for the project.

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Regulating Social Media

One thing to be picked up on here, complaints and dissent against the media has become a regular affair at the I&B Ministry. The strife has gone far, wherein the Ministry pinned on notification for punishment to journalists on the basis of mere allegations of “fake news” through withdrawal of their accreditation.

WhatsApp licensing policy has also been doing negative rounds; Pending in the Court where the moot contention circles around letting the service provider read the content before passing it on to the recipient. Reportedly, the Government wants to tap citizen’s WhatsApp messages. Enabling access through WhatsApp messages will be like creating “Surveillance State”.

In the batch of the above matter wherein sifting through messages can be a privacy breach, the 2017 ruling on the right to privacy can majorly impact any attempt to regulate social media.

Is India Surveillance State, Such Piece of Cake?

With the Supreme Court announcing Right to Privacy as a fundamental right, Center’s move to set up social media monitoring hubs comes as a violation of the edict. According to a petition issued last year, the social media monitoring hubs work as tools to snoop on individuals and don’t ring a bell with any word “progressive”.

Let’s put it this way – Contracted employees are hired to sift through social media contents to learn people’s opinion about the government schemes. Getting feedback is never wrong. However, the way of extracting that here is under a big question mark, as of now.

The government pillows its move by claiming that it will help them fetch better feedback on the schemes, which can further be modified to make it people-centric. But, there’s no denying that now the Government can sit on one peak-throne from where it can peep into private lives of individuals.

As of now, the bench has said that it is listing the whole matter on August 3, before the opening of tender on August 20.

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