An uproar broke out in India's parliament on Friday after the Ministry of Home Affairs, a federal government authority that controls the country’s internal security, seemingly authorized 10 government agencies — including federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies — to monitor, intercept, and decrypt all data on all computers in the country.
The governmental order detailing the powers immediately drew strong criticism from both India’s privacy activists and its opposition parties, who said it enabled blanket state surveillance and violated the fundamental right to privacy that India’s 1.3 billion citizens are constitutionally guaranteed.
People who don't comply might face up to seven years in prison and a fine, according to India’s Information Technology Act, which the order falls under.
The order caused a major dispute in India's parliament, with members of the opposition calling it "unconstitutional, undemocratic, and an assault on fundamental rights."
In response, India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, argued that the provisions in the order have existed in the Information Technology Act since 2008 — back when the Indian National Congress, the BJP's chief political rival, was in power.
The party said the order merely lists the named federal agencies allowed to exercise these powers. Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP leader and India's finance and corporate affairs minister, tweeted to say that all federal agencies would need permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs to intercept or decrypt the data. "In the absence of this authorization, any police officer may start exercising [this] power," he said.
However, the order doesn't state this. Officials of the Delhi police, one of the 10 agencies listed in the order, told Indian news website Scroll.in that it wasn't clear whether the order meant that they would need to obtain permission to intercept or monitor data first, since it didn't mention it.
The lack of clarity caused Indians on social media to express concern.
“What this order essentially does is gives a wide berth to security and investigative agencies to access data and information protected by the fundamental right to privacy without providing reason why such a draconian measure has been invoked,” Chitranshul Sinha, a Supreme Court lawyer in India, who called the order “unconstitutional,” told BuzzFeed News.
India's Information Security Act has allowed agencies to invoke surveillance measures in the interest of national security since 2008, but the act demands that the government provide written reasons that clearly explain why such measures are necessary.
“This latest order completely bypasses that,” said Sinha. “There might be good reasons based on security and sovereignty of the country necessitating such an order, but the lack of any reasons and no end date for the measures provided in it makes it untenable in the eyes of law. I hope somebody challenges it in court.”
Hours after the order became public, India’s opposition leaders attacked the government.
Rahul Gandhi, the president of the Indian National Congress, hit out at the prime minister.
Ahmed Patel, a Congress leader, called the order a “direct assault on civil liberties and personal freedom of citizens.”
P. Chidambaram, who headed up the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2009, told Indian newswire service ANI that “if anybody is going to monitor computers, then it is an Orwellian state.”
Randeep Singh Surjewala, a Congress leader, tweeted that the government wanted to snoop on India’s computers after the BJP lost elections in three key states earlier this month.
Sitaram Yechury, leader of the Communist Party of India, said that the order treated every Indian “like a criminal.”
“George Orwell’s Big Brother is here,” tweeted Asaduddin Owaisi, a member of the Indian Parliament and president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen political party. “Welcome to 1984.”
This story has been updated with the clarification about the order that Indian minister Arun Jaitley provided on Twitter.