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The Supreme Court today (Monday, Jan 14) issued a notice to Narendra Modi government on a clutch of petitions challenging its Dec 20 notification authorising 10 central agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt information generated, transmitted or stored on any computer in India.

The top court bench of Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Ashok Bhushan and SK Kaul directed the Centre to respond to the notice within six weeks.

However, the top court, which had earlier denied an early hearing in the case, refused to grant an interim stay on the implementation of the controversial surveillance order.

According to the notification, the subscriber or service provider or any person in charge of the computer resource will be bound to extend all facilities and technical assistance to the agencies and failing to do will invite seven-year imprisonment and fine.

The 10 agencies notified under the new order are the Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (for Income Tax Department), Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, Directorate of Signal Intelligence (in service areas of J-K, North East and Assam) and Delhi Police.

Earlier, the government had authorised agencies to tap phone calls but after permission from the Home Secretary. The order was last updated in 2011 and enables agencies to get into social media accounts and telephone intercepts.

The Union Ministry of Home Affairs has now authorised the agencies to intercept information under section 69 (1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000

“For the first time, powers of scanning data at rest have been given to various agencies. Earlier, only data in motion could be intercepted. But now data revived, stored and generated can also be intercepted as powers of seizure have been given,” a senior bureaucrat had explained to NDTV.

This means not just calls or emails, but any data found on a computer can be intercepted. The agencies will also have powers to seize the devices.

The home ministry has authorised the agencies to intercept information under 69 (1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 which says the central government can direct any agency after it is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient to do so in the “interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence”.

The government had come under fire for its order with the Opposition accusing the Centre of running a “police state”.

However, the Central government said the rules for intercepting and monitoring computer data were framed in 2009 when the Congress-led UPA was in power and its new order only notified the designated authority which can carry out such action.

At least four petitions have been moved before the Supreme Court challenging the snooping order on grounds that it violates an individual’s right to privacy and also the apex court’s landmark privacy verdict.

The petitions by lawyer Shreya Singhal, her co-petitioner and Trinamool Congress lawmaker Mahua Moitra, Supreme Court lawyer ML Sharma and others alleged that the government’s order is against the fundamental right to privacy and must be cancelled in the interest of justice.

Advocate Manohar Lal Sharma has sought that the notification be quashed and alleged that the government’s motive behind the order was “to find political opponent, thinker and speaker to control entire country under dictatorship to win coming general elections under an undisclosed emergency as well as slavery which cannot be permitted within the Constitution of India (sic)”.

The plea termed the notification “illegal, unconstitutional and ultra vires to the law.” He also sought to prohibit the agencies from initiating any criminal proceedings, enquiry or investigation against anybody under the provisions of the IT Act based on the notification.

The petition alleged that the notification gives the state the right to access every communication, computer and mobile and “to use it to protect political interest and object of the present executive political party.”

A separate petition filed by advocate Amit Sahni says the directive issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs is “undemocratic and an assault on fundamental rights of the citizens of India”.

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