India proposes restrictions on tapping telephone calls

The requirement for interception should be limited to public emergencies and safety

An Indian government report has recommended that interception of telephone calls by government agencies should be limited to situations when there is a "public emergency" or "public safety" is at stake.

The proposals are in line with Supreme Court rulings that state that a public emergency or the interest of public safety are preconditions for the application of legal provisions for such interceptions, according to a note issued by the country's Press Information Bureau (PIB).

India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, directed Cabinet Secretary K.M.Chandrasekhar to review India's telephone interception rules and procedures in December, after recordings by the income tax department of conversations between a lobbyist and top Indian politicians and businessmen were leaked to the media.

The telephone conversations have been key in investigations into an alleged scam in the allotment of 2G licenses and spectrum in 2008 by former telecommunications minister A. Raja.

A top Indian industrialist, Ratan Tata, said that his privacy had been encroached upon by leaks to the media of tapes of his telephone conversation with the lobbyist, and filed a case with the country's Supreme Court for protection of his privacy. Tata did not however question the right of the tax department to tap telephone conversations for investigations.

The report by the Cabinet Secretary said that the interception of the calls by the Income Tax department to investigate tax evasion was not in line with various provisions in Indian law that provide for authorization of interception, according to the note by the PIB.

The law does not permit use of telephone tapping and monitoring of conversations to merely detect tax evasion, the note said.

In addition, the cabinet secretary has also recommended that the Income Tax department should be removed as an agency authorized to tap phones, or that a limit be put on its surveillance powers. The change suggested by the Cabinet Secretary is only procedural in that it proposes that the Income Tax department be excluded from the agencies authorized to intercept telephone calls, said Pranesh Prakash, program manager at the Centre for Internet and Society, a research and advocacy group focused on consumer and citizen rights on the Internet.

The report could have proposed more substantive changes by prescribing the situations where the legal conditions of public emergency and public safety for telephone interception are met, allowing authorities to sanction interceptions, he added.

The government should also introduce more transparency by making the report public and inviting debate on it, according to Prakash. Information should also be available on the number of telephones taps, their efficacy, and misuse, he added.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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