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MIB Minister tries to allay fears on online surveillance & privacy violations

Rajyavardhan Rathore also tells Parliament no proposal to install tracking chips in STBs

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NEW DELHI: The Indian government has denied that its proposed Social Media Communications Hub, under the jurisdiction of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), will violate a citizen’s privacy through monitoring of social media footprints as the plan was more directed towards propagating the government’s policy initiatives.

The government has also clarified that there was no proposal under consideration to get installed tracking chips in set-top- boxes through which various TV and broadband services are delivered to a large number of the 190 million-plus TV households in India.

“The government proposes to set up a Social Media Hub to facilitate information flow regarding its policies and programmes through social media platforms, that is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc.,” MIB Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore told the Indian Parliament’s Lower House yesterday while answering queries raised by fellow parliamentarians whether such a monitoring facility is aimed at collecting and analysing data across all major social media platforms that would ultimately be a surveillance tool for the government.

The Minister also clarified that there was no proposal to “invade an

individual’s right to privacy, and the right to freedom of speech” through the proposed social media hub.

In the past two years, MIB has been a facilitator in providing publicity to the flagship schemes of the government on major social media platforms and had organized various online promotional activities in this regard, Rathore explained.

What Rathore didn’t clarify or add --- as he was not asked specifically so --- as to why a tender for setting up of the Social Media Communications Hub was floated in the first place and why the document’s objectives were so detailed that it alarmed civil society on its citizen surveillance aspects. The full details of the tender document can be still found online.

Incidentally, the deadline for a tender floated to locate vendor(s) to set up the proposed social media hub --- termed by critics as a surveillance tool to monitor Indian citizens’ activities and thoughts in real time --- has been extended several times since April 2018 with the new deadline now being 20 August 2018 before which the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case against its setting first week of August.

The apex court’s initial observations sounded critical as it said if such a monitoring hub came up it could turn India into a “surveillance state”.

Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), an organization under the umbrella of MIB, had floated a tender to supply a software for the project. When the idea was first mooted Smriti Irani was the MIB Minister.

"A technology platform is needed to collect digital media chatter from all core social media platforms as well as digital platforms such as news, blogs... In a single system providing real-time insights, metrics and other valuable data," the tender document stated.

Under the project, media persons would be employed on contractual basis in each district to be the "eyes and ears" of the government and provide real-time updates from the ground --- one of the reason for extending the deadline was this condition, missing in the original tender document, got added later.

According to critics of the project, undertaken under a seemingly harmless name of Social Media Communications Hub, however, it aimed to monitor in real times not only the social media and online activities of Indian citizens, but also seeks to deploy technology to predict behavior and possible future actions of people. This, at a time when India doesn’t have strong data protection laws.

Amongst the many listed objectives of the media hub is this: “What would be the headlines and breaking news of various channels and newspapers across the globe--- could be done with knowledge about their leanings, business deals, investors, their country policies, sentiment of their population, past trends etc. NYT, Economist, Time etc. are good examples, what would be the global public perception due to such headlines and breaking news, how could the public perception be moulded in positive manner for the country, how could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses, how can the perception management of India be improved at the world for a how could the media blitzkrieg of India’s adversaries be predicted and replied/neutralized, how could the social media and internet news/discussions be given a positive slant for India.”

One of the many critics of this project is the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which has also sent a notice to the MIB to stop the project, failing which the organization would take legal action. Its concerns? “Social Media Communication Hub will also have the ability to broadcast content without any legal authority or guidance through 20 central and 716 district level social media executives. In sum, this is a system of control through surveillance and a capacity to spread propaganda,” the Foundation had said in an online campaign last month.

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