Home / Editorial / Government firefights moments of embarrassment on eve of Narendra Modi visit to Silicon Valley

Government firefights moments of embarrassment on eve of Narendra Modi visit to Silicon Valley

New Delhi,Iftikhar Gilani: Though, the government on Tuesday withdrew a draft encryption policy that would have made it mandatory for storage of all electronic messages as well as registration of devices, the timing of its unveiling has been embarrassing.


Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad greets MoS Rajayavardhan Rathore as they leave after a Cabinet meeting in New Delhi

Highly placed sources in the government said while a policy to secure transactions and to prevent cyber crimes was long overdue, making it public at a time to coincide with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley has landed planners of his tour in a soup. Already, they are battling 130 US-based South Asian academics, who in a letter Silicon Valley scientists, have expressed concern over Modi’s Digital India Initiative, saying it was aimed at to conduct mass surveillance. PM is traveling to the Bay Area for a visit aimed at attracting investment in technology and electronics manufacturing in India.

Even, the Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also admitted that some of the expressions used in the draft have given rise to uncalled-for misgivings, there is none in the government to explain, why timing was chosen, just days ahead of Modi’s US visit.

Soon after it was unveiled, there was a flurry of activities within the PMO, Cabinet Secretariat as well as in the Ministry of external affairs to control damage and the impression that India was planing to snoop on its citizens. Many feel that the policy, even though just a draft, has not only strengthened argument of Modi-bashers in the US, but has also hit the country on diplomatic front as well.

After 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, during previous UPA government, India had a series of back-and-forth demands to open up the encrypted data network of Blackberry and other networks so the security officials could inspect the messages. Union home ministry had been seeking interception solutions because it was learned that Pakistani terrorists had used mobile and satellite phones to coordinate the strikes. Currently, agencies submit name of the suspect to network companies, who in turn provide the decoded communication records of the customer. But this does not include their enterprise services.

Generally, all messaging services like WhatsApp, Viber, Line, Google Chat, Yahoo Messenger and the like come with a high level of encryption and many a time, security agencies find it hard to intercept these messages. “Yesterday, it was brought to our notice that draft has been put in the public domain seeking comments. I wish to make it very clear that it is just a draft and not the view of the government. I have noted concerns expressed… by the public,” Prasad said.

Congress party’s chief spokesman Randeep Singh Surjiwala described it another sinister attempt by Modi government to control, subjugate and suppress the individual liberty. “If all data of an individual will be monitored and stored, if everything you say do browse, sent on the Internet will be stored and monitored, who will trust you and why should two individuals or agencies trust each other,” he said.

But more than snooping on mails, the policy also stated that government will notify a list of encryption products and services and only these will be allowed to be used for businesses or communication in the country. Surjiwala said registration of communication products and services is an anti-thesis to Digital India as also to ease of doing business. He also questions what will the government do in case any operators outside India refuses to register? “Will you block them from this country forever?” he asked.

What the draft says
According to the original draft, the new encryption policy proposes that every message a user sends – be it through WhatsApp, SMS, e-mail or any such service – must be stored in plain text format for 90 days and made available on demand to security agencies.

The policy was proposed under section 84 A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 through an amendment in 2008. The sub-section 84 C, which was also introduced at around the same time, carries provisions of imprisonment for any violation of the Act.