Authorising wire-taps in India

There is a process in place in the government to authorise wire-taps.

Only sketchy details about the procedure in vogue via which Government of India authorises phone-tapping are available on the World Wide Web (here and here). It creates the impression in many reasonable minds that the phone-tappings can be done at anyone’s whim and fancy. Of course, this is not the truth.

Thankfully, the Union Home Secretary has now — in the context of the leaked phone tappings of Niira Radia — gone on record to explain how the phone-tapping authorisation process actually works in the government of India.

Mr. Pillai said the fears of widespread wiretapping are much exaggerated and that he follows strict guidelines in approving any surveillance.

He said the government has about 6,000 to 8,000 wiretaps happening at any point, and only about 3% to 5% of them are for corporate or white-collar investigations (with roughly 80% aimed at gleaning information about potential militant activity in the restive Himalayan region of Kashmir, troubled northeastern states and areas affected by a widespread Maoist insurgency).

Investigators must show him some evidence that a suspect has done something illegal – a document, an email, a bank statement.

Each wiretap can go for a maximum of 60 days before his approval must be sought again. And Mr. Pillai’s authorizations are reviewed every two weeks by a board including the telecom secretary, Cabinet secretary and law secretary, he says.

Meanwhile, elected politicians at both the state and central government levels are not wiretapped as a matter of policy, he says. The only way investigators could hear their conversations is if they happened to be caught on the other end of the line talking to a bugged individual, as happened when Ms. Radia had phone conversations with former telecom minister A. Raja about the status of his position in the cabinet appointments that followed last year’s election. (Those calls were among those that were leaked.)[WSJ-IRT]

More importantly, Mr Pillai has spoken about the need to change the procedure as well.

Mr. Pillai said he will likely pursue some changes to the country’s telecom laws to clarify the government’s authority for intercepts of highly secure corporate communications, part of a broader set of changes related to lawful intercept policy and privacy.[WSJ]

People can disagree with the authorisation process. Or criticise the inability of the government to protect some citizens’ private data from coming out into the public domain. But the insinuations from many quarters that the government has no processes and mechanisms to authorise phone-tappings and any government or police or intelligence official can tap anyone’s telephones, without any checks and balances in place, would hopefully stop now.

This nation certainly needs to debate, as Mr Pillai says, “a broader set of changes related to lawful intercept policy and privacy.” But for anyone who thinks that government must stay away from all phone-tapping, the answer came from James Madison in 1788:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

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