A new phone and Internet surveillance system launched in April by India, the world's largest democracy, could undermine privacy and free expression, Human Rights Watch, or HRW, warned on Friday.
The rights group said India does not have a privacy law to protect citizens against the government’s invasive behavior and that the existing two laws addressing interception or access to communication records allows government surveillance in the name of national security.
The allegation comes soon after revelations in the U.S. that the National Security Agency, or NSA, is scrutinizing millions of customer phone records at Verizon Communications and spying on digital communications data from nine Internet service providers.
In April, the Indian government released the Central Monitoring System, or CMS, which facilitates government monitoring of all phone and Internet communications in the country.
“The Indian government’s centralized monitoring is chilling, given its reckless and irresponsible use of the sedition and Internet laws,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher, in an HRW news release. “New surveillance capabilities have been used around the world to target critics, journalists, and human rights activists.”
India’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology said in 2011 that there will be measures that will “prevent misuse of lawful interception facility.”
However, HRW said that the government has not revealed “what agencies will have access to the system, who may authorize surveillance, and what legal standards must be met to intercept various kinds of data or communications.”
In recent months, Indian authorities have come under fire for arresting people for criticism against politicians.
Last November, two girls were arrested by police in the western state of Maharashtra for a comment on Facebook questioning the shutdown of Mumbai following the death of Bal Thackeray, an influential leader of the conservative, right-wing Shiv Sena party.
Last October, a businessman from Pondicherry in southern India, was arrested for a tweet targeting the son of India's Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. In April last year, West Bengal police arrested a professor for circulating emails to friends that contained a cartoon criticizing the state's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
All the detainees were subsequently released on bail, but only after the government faced heavy condemnation from the public.
Critics have also denounced Section 66A of India’s Information Technology Act, which makes posting online “any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character” punishable with a three-year jail term.