Prevent abuse of power to snoop

Forty-five years after the legislature first introduced a controversial amendment, Section 5(2), to the erstwhile Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, giving central and state governments the power to intercept communication, the contentious issue has once again come to the fore. The Maharashtra government’s decision to turn down a proposal by the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) demanding the power to tap phones in the wake of a spike in graft cases has, once again, raised some pertinent questions.

Law enforcement officials and civil rights activists on both sides of the divide continue to argue the pros and cons of giving the state the powers to infringe upon an individual’s right to life and liberty, and right to free speech enshrined in Article 21 and 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. The counter argument to the state’s intrusions into an individual’s private life is that of state and national security, especially in a country like India where terrorism has, time and again, reared its ugly head, resulting in laws like POTA that curtail civil liberty and provide justification for outright phone tapping as a “necessary evil” in such an environment.

The Supreme Court had, in its earlier judgments, introduced guidelines to be followed, such as giving power to home secretaries to issue orders for tapping, and putting in place a high-level committee to review wiretap requests. However, these guidelines have clearly failed to curb the misuse of the authority to tap phones, as past incidents have shown widespread abuse by our netas to snoop on their political rivals.

As both sides of the argument hold true in the Indian context, for the time being there is an urgent need to put in place a comprehensive regulatory mechanism while giving permissions to snoop. For now, corruption in state departments does not look too big an administrative challenge to merit wiretaps. Surely, there are other ways to tackle the menace rather than leaving the door open, once again, for multi-level abuse of this power.

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