Indian Government may intercept your phone calls as India-Pakistan conflict escalates — but is it legal
- The India government might be looking into monitoring international long-distance calls amid rising tensions between India and Pakistan.
- While no requests have been issues so far, the Telegraph Act, 1885 holds a provision for the government to monitor calls.
- Government agencies can also ask telecom operators for surveillance equipment and arrangements to monitor several calls simultaneously.
It’s possible that the Indian government is going to ask telecom operators to intercept calls between India and Pakistan.
The companies are preparing themselves for requests to monitor international long-distance traffic on select routes after the Indian military put the northwestern states near the India-Pakistan border on high-alert.
If any requests had been made, the information would be strictly confidential and only the designated nodal officer at each telecom company would know.
“The nodal officer is bound by strict confidentiality requirements. So, unable to confirm if any requests have been received by operators.”
But, telecom operators have the equipment to monitor calls and government has ordered internet shutdowns in the past.
Ram Narain, the former Deputy Director General in the telecom department told the Economic Times, “The government can technically order temporary Internet shutdowns in surcharged situations to pre-empt rumour mongering and the wrong sort of messages spreading in sensitive zones in national security interest, and can even direct telcos to intercept/tap specific calls, based on intelligence inputs.”
Can telecom operators or the government legally monitor your calls?
The surveillance of any person or group — or even telecom network themselves — can be enabled by enacting the Telegraph Act, 1885.
“Any appliance, instrument, material or apparatus used or capable of use for the occurrence of a public emergency or transmission or reception of signs, signals, the interest of public safety are therefore writing, images and sounds or intelligence of pre-requisites for the invocation of any nature by wire, visual or other electromagnetic Section 5(2). In the absence of either, the emissions, radio waves or Hertzian waves, galvanic, Government is disallowed from interc- electric or magnetic means.”
The definition of “telegraph” in the Telegraph Act brings virtually all communication devices under its umbrella — including smartphones and land lines.
But, what actually gives the government the power to monitor calls is in the Section 5(2) of the Act, which states that the government can switch to surveillance “on the occurrence of any public emergency, or in the interest of public safety.”
Essentially, the government can intercept calls, if necessary, in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign States, and public order.
Additionally, under the Section 5(2), the government can ask telecom operators for surveillance equipment — but there is no obligation for the government to clearly outline the reasons.
The definition of ‘surveillance equipment’ is also broad so the government has the power to install any surveillance equipment that matches up to the current state of technology and their requirements.
The India Surveillance Report asserts that telecom operators are required to make arrangements for the government to monitor several calls simultaneously. Government agencies have specified that the number of calls should be 480. They should all have ‘monitoring equipment’, and at least 30 calls should have tracing capabilities in each of the 10 designated security agencies.
The specific ‘security agencies’ are not known to the public.
The procedural law for tapping phones is under Rule 419A of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951. It also states that a lawful order may be issued only once all other reasonable means for acquiring the information have been ruled out.
International policy sentiment towards surveillance isn’t favourable with the implied violation of the ‘right to privacy’ and the ‘right to freedom of expression and opinion.’
The UN General Assembly’s Resolution to ‘Right to Privacy in the Digital Age’ is a call for national laws to be reviewed.
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