Governments have always snooped in the name of national security
Since time immemorial, spying and spying have been powerful tools. Even in democracies, those in power have used it, selectively and also blatantly, to pulverize competitors within their own party and against opponents by making baffling details of private acts or conversations secretly recorded.
In January 2006, the then powerful politician Amar Singh had moved to the Supreme Court crying because his phones were being spied on by government agencies. The SC had prohibited the media from publishing any leaks of the so-called telephone interceptions. In 2011, the SC dismissed the petition saying that Singh had not gone to court with clean hands since he had suppressed several vital facts.
No one felt threatened by the government's action to spy on a politician's phone. Probably, most privacy activists and politicians rejoiced privately over the interception of Singh's phones and expected possible exciting leaks from the interception agencies.
In August 2008, the UPA government, led by Congress, authorized the tax department to intercept the phones of the corporate lobbyist Nira Radia for a period of 120 days, which extended for another 120 days in May 2009. Parties of the Radia tapes leaked to the media. These gave an idea of the scope of the lobbyist in politics, industry, high society, legal field and journalism. The escape of the tapes coincided with the revelations of the and this strengthened the perception of the capitalism of friends and the fixation of government decisions.
Chopped by the revelation of his conversations with Radia, the president of the Tata Group, Ratan Tata, moved the SC blaming the interception agencies for filtering the Radia tapes and requested a ban on the publication of the contents, alleging that he violated his right to privacy. But an NGO, the Public Interest Litigation Center, joined Tata and sought an address for all conversations on Radia tapes to be made public, except those of a purely personal nature.
The SC must still issue a judgment on Tata's petition, which has been pending since May 2010. When the court finally decides on this petition, it will face a clash between the right to privacy, that a court of nine judges in the KS case Puttaswamy ruled to be a fundamental right and part of the right to life guaranteed under article 21 of the Constitution, and the right to information guaranteed under article 19, as well as the RTI Law.
Radia's recordings showed how journalists, who pontificate above all, can be flexible when in the company of powerful politicians, socialites and lobbyists. An important national television presenter was heard on the tapes trying to play the role of a political diva in the distribution of portfolios in Manmohan Singh's cabinet after UPA was re-elected in 2009.
Another experienced journalist was heard uncomfortably begging Radia to introduce his colleague, a journalist, in the lobbyist's elite social circle that would help improve his already fascinating resume.
But the question remains: why did the interception agency not destroy Radia's private conversations with numerous other illustrious personalities that had nothing to do with any transaction or doubtful deal?
If the agencies did not, then it was surely their duty to keep them in safe custody. Now, copies of all 5,851 Radia telephone interceptions, with their transcripts, are stored securely in the SC register. Will it be made public one day when the court decides Tata's request?
After the controversy of the Radia tape, the government in 2012 launched the mechanism of 'Interception and Legal Monitoring' (LIM). In 2013, the same government proposed the creation of a National Cyber Coordination Center (NCCC), with the mandate to collect, integrate and scan (Internet) traffic data from different gateway routers of the main Internet service providers in a centralized location for analysis.
All major government technical and spy agencies were part of the proposed NCCC, which will grant law enforcement agencies direct access to all Internet accounts, be it their emails, blogs or social media data. No rights activist perceived it as a threat to the right to privacy.
On January 25 of this year, the SC received a PIL from the 'Popular Union for Civil Liberties' that sought a judicial overview of the existing surveillance mechanism to guarantee the protection of citizens' right to privacy. Citing the data collected through the RTI Law, the petitioner said: In 2013 (during the UPA regime), up to 9,000 telephone interception orders were issued and, in addition, about 500 orders were issued each month for the interception of emails.
He requested the SC to annul Section 5 (2) of the Telegraph Law, Section 69 of the IT Law and the Information Technology Rules (Procedure for Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information), 2009 , approved under Section 69 of the IT Law.
Now, WhatsApp's revelation about spy spying on politicians, human rights activists, lawyers and journalists has brought us back to the days of the Radia tape. It is an enigma why he, who has sought a WhatsApp response, has not issued a categorical statement that he never used or authorized the use of this spyware by any of his agencies.
Will CPIL or PUCL present a PIL in the SC looking for WhatsApp details to make public the conversations and text messages that were spied on by spyware, as they did in the Radia controversy?