With the release of the draft of the National Encryption Policy, made public by the Centre few weeks ago, once again freedom of speech and the right to privacy in the world’s largest democracy has become a major topic of discussion. Though the government withdrew the draft within 24 hours of uploading it on the website of the concerned department and went on to replace it with a revised version, cyber law experts and members of civil society are far from convinced.
According to the original draft, every message or email sent by a user through such services as WhatsApp, messenger chats, and transactions through Internet banking are be stored by users for up to 90 days and made available as plain text to security agencies on demand. If users fail to do so, they can be prosecuted under the appropriate law.
Some cyber experts believe that security agencies find it hard to intercept messages on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo messenger, Google Chat and WhatsApp because these services use a high level of encryption technology.
Ironically, this draft was made public at a time when Mr. Modi was due to visit Silicon Valley to meet the top brass of leading brands in the digital world.
Many activists and experts associated with technology firms and the digital industry expressed shock over the draft saying that though the Prime Minister was talking about Digital India, his government’s draft of the National Encryption Policy was in fact a step back in terms of promoting technology.
Opposition parties like the Congress and the AamAadmi Party (AAP) took strong objection to government’sflip-flop over the encryption policy. Some Congress Party members even said the policy was a reaction to the snooping incidentthat came to light in Ahmedabad last year. AAP criticized the Modi government saying that only a fascist government could bring such laws and policies.
The draft was uploaded by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) which comes under the Ministry of Communications and Information on September 22, but following the outrage from netizens, the Opposition parties and the Industry, the draft was withdrawn and Minister for Communications and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said the DeitY would review it.
“There was concern about the draft in certain sections. When I went through the draft policy, I found that there were two-three words which were giving rise to unnecessary misgivings,” Prasad told media persons. “Hence I have directed the department to withdraw the draft policy, review it and then make clear on whom it is applicable and on whom it is not,” he added.
In the new draft, data on social media and password based bank transactions through internet banking have been exempted.
But even after the review, the current draft has many problematic clauses. The clause ordering all users, whether government, business or the common citizen, to save all data which includes emails, chats, text messages and money transactions for 90 days and to be able to produce them before law enforcement agencies if/when required in plain text, remains.
One can easily see that the draft is in clear violation of a citizen’s right to personal liberty. It is also contrary to the rights of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19 in the Constitution of India.
One of the main problems with the draft is that it sees the entire population of the country which uses mobile phones and Internet as potential criminals.
This is not the first attempt to curb the right to privacy of an ordinary citizen, but it follows from many such attempts made by previous governments. It is bizarre that every time the government wants to exploit the common man’s privacy and put them under some kind of surveillance, they crynational and cyber security. Though national security is an important issue, the government now wants to snoop on every citizen of the country. It is difficult for a common user to save such bulky data for three months. Therefore it is the duty of the government to act swiftly to protect the right to privacy and freedom of speech.