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Supreme Court questions MIB’s digital chatter monitoring proposal

Online monitoring would be "like creating a surveillance state", apex court observes

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NEW DELHI: The government proposes, Supreme Court disposes. Well, almost. Not fully yet. Though, the apex court has questioned a Ministry of Information and Broadcasting proposal to monitor digital chatter and online footprint, observing today that if done it would be "like creating a surveillance state".

The top court said the government wants to tap citizens' WhatsApp messages and sought its response within two weeks, according to a report filed by Press Trust of India.

A bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud issued notice to the federal government on a plea by Trinamool Congress (TMC) legislator Mahua Moitra and sought Attorney General K K Venugopal's assistance in the matter.

"The government wants to tap citizens' WhatsApp messages. It will be like creating a surveillance state," the bench was quoted by PTI as having said earlier in the day.

The bench then said it was listing the matter on 3 August 2018, before the opening of the tender on 20 August 2018 for the proposed monitoring cell. The attorney-general or any law officer for the government will assist the court in the matter. As reported by Indiantelevision.com earlier, the project’s deadline has already been extended several times.

 The project being undertaken under a seemingly harmless name of Social Media Communications Hub, however, has aims 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.

Meanwhile returning to the Supreme Court, earlier on 18 June 2018 the court had refused to accord urgent hearing on the TMC member’s plea seeking to stay a central government move to set up a 'Social Media Communication Hub' that would collect and analyse digital and social media content.

The counsel for Moitra had said that the government is trying to monitor social media content of individuals by tracking their social media accounts such as those on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and their e-mails.

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 elaborated.

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 as this condition, missing in the original tender document, got added later.

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