India sets up nationwide inspection programmes

MUMBAI: India has launched a wide-ranging surveillance programme that will give its security agencies and even income tax officials the ability to tap directly into e-mails and phone calls without oversight by courts or parliament, several sources said.

The expanded surveillance in the world‘s most populous democracy, which the government says will help safeguard national security, has alarmed privacy advocates at a time when allegations of massive US digital snooping beyond American shores have set off a global rumpus.

The Central Monitoring System (CMS) was announced in 2011 but there has been no public debate and the government has said little about how it will work or how it will ensure that the system is not abused.

The government started to quietly roll the system out state by state in April this year, according to government officials. Eventually it will be able to target any of India‘s 900 million landline and mobile phone subscribers and 120 million Internet users.

Officials said making details of the project public would limit its effectiveness as a stealthy intelligence-gathering tool.

"Security of the country is very important. All countries have these surveillance programmes," said a senior telecommunications ministry official, defending the need for a large-scale eavesdropping system like CMS.

"You can see terrorists getting caught, you see crimes being stopped. You need surveillance. This is to protect you and your country," said the official, who is directly involved in setting up the project.

The new system will allow the government to listen to and tape phone conversations, read e-mails and text messages, monitor posts on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and track searches on Google of selected targets, according to interviews with two other officials involved in setting up the new surveillance programme, human rights activists and cyber experts.

Security agencies will no longer need to seek a court order for surveillance or depend, as they do now, on Internet or telephone service providers to give them the data, the government officials said.

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