Indian Government Asserts Widespread Digital Surveillance Powers After WhatsApp Hack

Armed police stand guard on the streets of Mumbai in November 2019 amid heightened tensions over a Supreme Court ruling on holy site contested by Hindus and Muslims.
Photo: Indrani Mukherjee/AFP (Getty Images)

The Indian government has asserted sweeping powers to “intercept, monitor, or decrypt” any information that is “generated, transmitted, received, or stored” on any computer network in the country, per TechCrunch, and for purposes as vague as national security or safeguarding public order.”

TechCrunch reported that Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy claimed the powers in response to written questions from Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament. Reddy said that local law empowers federal and state authorities to “intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence.”

Advertisement

The answer was related to a question about whether the Indian government has procured the support of NSO Group, a shady Israeli cyberintelligence company that Facebook is suing over claims it was behind a massive hack of subsidiary WhatsApp to distribute the phone-monitoring Pegasus malware. Local reports have indicated that NSO malware may have been involved in the tracking of Indian lawyers, tribal rights activists, and other critics, while NSO spyware has also been linked to the murder of Saudi Arabian dissident-in-exile Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights abuses.

Reddy wrote in his answer that such snooping powers are available only to 10 agencies, including intelligence, narcotics, tax, and law enforcement divisions. He added that this process followed “due process of law, and [is] subject to safeguards as provided in the rules,” as well as requires the signoff of committees run by the Union Home Secretary (for federal agencies) or Home Secretary of the State (for state authorities).

Advertisement

As TechCrunch noted, a recent report by New Delhi’s Software Law and Freedom Centre found that at least 100,000 telephone interception orders were issued by the central government alone annually. The center found that the “truly staggering scale” of the monitoring involves an “opaque surveillance regime that is run solely by the Executive arm of the Government” with no independent oversight,” while Indian authorities are moving quickly to rapidly expand monitoring infrastructure.

Per Bloomberg, Facebook is currently locked in a legal battle with the Indian government over whether authorities there can compel messaging service providers like WhatsApp or social platforms “to trace and reveal the identity of the originator of a message.” Additionally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced he would seek regulatory action against social platforms his government claims are causing “unimaginable disruption” to democracy throughout the country, though Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra wrote in a recent editorial that Modi has made little secret that he is an “unreconstructed ethnic-religious supremacist” who has capitalized on “continuous explosions of violence in both virtual and real worlds.”

Advertisement

Share This Story

About the author

Tom McKay

"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post