How The Indian Government's 'Central Monitoring System' Makes The NSA Look Like A Paragon Of Restraint
from the it-could-be-worse dept
Glyn Moody covered the roll out of India’s intrusive surveillance system a couple of months ago, but more information has come out, filling in the details of the country’s breathtaking domestic spy network. If the NSA’s surveillance capabilities make the Stasi’s spying seem completely underwhelming, the Indian government’s efforts in the same arena threatens to make our men and women at the NSA look as if they’re just not applying themselves.
The NSA, as revealed in media reports earlier this month, has been monitoring phone-call metadata (such as phone numbers and call durations) on a widespread basis for years, but has to get the approval of a (albeit secret) court to spy on the calls themselves or the content of emails. The CMS [Centralized Monitoring System], by contrast, will give nine Indian government agencies—including the tax department—the power to access, in real-time, phone conversations, video conferences, text messages, emails, and even internet search data and social media activity…
If that’s not enough to make the NSA’s staunchest supporters begin fantasizing about setting the Constitution ablaze using the Bill of Rights as kindling, it gets even better/worse, depending on your point of view.
[The agencies] will work without any independent oversight, Reuters reports [and] the agencies can start monitoring targets without the approval of the courts or the parliament.
We get the impression here that the NSA works without oversight, but many have rushed to point out that Congress is (supposedly) watching the watchers and all requests must receive FISA court approval, something that seems about as difficult to obtain as a “Participant” ribbon. India is simply being more efficient and cutting out the brief “makin’ it legal” stops on the way to the domestic data harvest.
The CMS has it easy. No privacy laws to break. A system that is its own rubber stamp. But it goes even further. Someone must have wondered aloud during the formation of the CMS, “It’s almost too easy. But is it too easy enough?”
Moreover, with the CMS, security agencies won’t need to request users’ information from telcos. They’ll be able to get it directly, using existing interception systems that are built into telecom and data-service networks. According to the Hindu newspaper, the system will have dedicated servers and extensive data-mining capabilities that can be used for surveillance.
Much like the 9/11 attacks led to an unprecedented increase in domestic (and worldwide) surveillance by US security agencies, the Mumbai attacks of 2008 resulted in changes to existing laws that allowed the Indian government to increase the size (and depth) of its surveillance net. Additional attacks in 2011 prompted another rewrite and expansion. Again, much like in the US, the terms “safety” and “security” are thrown around to justify the existence and actions of the CMS.
Finally, much like the US, government officials have taken care to point out the supposed “oversight” CMS falls under, and it’s every bit as weak as the arguments used by the NSA’s defenders.
The government has so far played down fears of abuse. Senior government officials told the Times of India that since “CMS will involve an online system for filing and processing of all lawful interception requests, an electronic audit trail will be in place for each phone number put under surveillance.” And who will audit the audit trail? The same ministry that authorizes the surveillance requests. Hardly a reassuring safeguard.
Oversight doesn’t really mean anything if no one’s interested in questioning actions or curbing excesses. Making sure the foxes guarding the national hen house answer to a different fox does very little to improve the hens’ existence, and even less to deter the predatory nature of their “guardians.”