Whatsapp? Clean Up India’s Snooping Act
The Jammu and Kashmir government wants everyone who operates groups on Whatsapp, a social media application on mobile phones, to register themselves with local authorities. This, it believes, will help curb the spread of messages expressing disaffection towards the administration. What rubbish. The order should be scrapped immediately. First, it is impractical: Whatsapp is heavily encrypted and it is impossible to hack into communications flowing through it. Second, it is overbearing: the order will rub salt into the wounds of people already seething from real and perceived injustices meted out by security forces. Three, it is a slap on the face of freedom of expression. Finally, the order is probably illegal. It should be challenged in court. If the government suspects some people of plotting serious crime or terror, it must try and pre-empt these activities. But it has to operate within the boundaries of law. Court warrants must be procured to monitor people or groups; lawsuits must be filed, cases heard and justice delivered impartially. Snooping cannot be indiscriminate; India is a democracy, where citizens have the right to privacy. In the US, for example, federal authorities can sanction electronic surveillance, but only if convinced by investigating agencies that this is necessary for national security or to solve serious crimes. Federal judges have to sanction snooping. And a senate committee holds the spooks to account.
India follows no such niceties. Our intelligence agencies have little or no accountability, except notionally to the executive. Their functioning is opaque, efficiency questionable and spending of taxpayer funds, unchecked. This must change. All surveillance operations must obtain legal sanction. Spooks must report to select Parliament committees.