“If there is a 360 degree monitoring of your WhatsApp content, we will become a surveillance state,” Justice D Y Chandrachud said. A bench of CJI Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and Chandrachud, appreciating the urgency of the PIL by Trinamool MLA Mohua Moitra, sought the Centre’s response in two weeks. The PIL said monitoring social media activities would be a blatant violation of the right to privacy.
While posting the matter for further hearing on July 30, the bench sought attorney general K K Venugopal’s assistance in the case. The government had claimed the hub was to track views on various programmes and understand popular perception on schemes. It also claimed that through SMCH, it would attempt to inculcate nationalist feelings among citizens and counter campaigns intended to harm India’s image globally.
Moitra’s counsel, senior advocate A M Singhvi, said the proposed SMCH would become a tool in the hands of a private agency to help the government launch surveillance on citizens’ activities on social media platforms in violation of the right to privacy, which is a part of right to life. “It is a project to create advance surveillance infrastructure in the country,” Singhvi said.
The petition said the tender document stipulated that the successful bidder would be required “to collect digital media chatter from all social media platforms as well as digital platforms like news, and blogs”. The platforms include Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Google, LinkedIn, Flickr, Tumblr, Pinterest, Play Store and even emails.
The last is also the most problematic due to the implied mass surveillance of emails.
Moitra in her petition accused the government of attempting to create a 360 degree profile of persons “who are creating a buzz on social media”. She said the move violated right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution as well as other fundamental rights of citizens.
The government agency Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Ltd, which floated the tender, specified that the successful bidder must set up a “team of 20 social media analytics executives to provide reports on sentiments, reach and details related to trending topics and hashtags as instructed by the ministry of information and broadcasting”.
The team is also expected to do a predictive analytics about what would be the headlines and breaking news on various TV channels and newspapers. This work, using artificial intelligence, would include “how public perception could be moulded in a positive manner for the country, how nationalistic feelings could be inculcated in the masses, how perception management of India could be improved in the world, how the media blitzkrieg of India’s adversaries could be predicted and replied/neutralised, how social media and internet news/discussions could be given a positive slant for India”.