Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reluctance to raise the slightest murmur of protest against the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying excesses during his American trip leaves us with one question: will NSA surveillance continue unabated? India has displayed a stunning lack of political will to even broach the issue with Washington D.C. Perhaps, this was inevitable: a Prime Minister humiliated at home by his own party can hardly be expected to sour the one foreign policy achievement that defines his legacy. Singh was busy ensuring the India-US nuclear deal is operationalised before he demits office to worry about concerns that actually affect the lives and businesses of Indians.
This is unfortunate because NSA surveillance is an area where rare consensus has emerged among the BRICS countries. At the UN General Assembly session in New York last week, BRICS Foreign Ministers “expressed concern” at the “unauthorised interception of communication and data,” without calling out the NSA in specific. But there exist no international regulations to protect civilians from such surveillance because the US and the United Kingdom in particular are opposed to any cybersecurity treaty. In 2010, Russia — backed by Brazil and China — tabled a draft convention on cybercrimes at the UN, only to be shot down by the West. The Russian proposal specifically targeted intrusive technology and cyber attacks — the sort of stuff the NSA is adept at. But the US successfully spun the narrative around to suggest autocratic countries like Russia and China wanted to clamp down on the Internet.
The US used a pretext last December when the UN deliberated an international communications treaty under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The Obama administration, however, refused to sign the International Telecom Regulations and asserted that cybersecurity be kept out of the treaty’s mandate. It insisted the Internet be unregulated to leave it “free and open.” Months later, leaked NSA documents courtesy Edward Snowden would reveal how the US arm-twisted telecom companies and Internet service providers for confidential user data. Had the US signed on to the ITRs, the NSA’s PRISM programme would have amounted to a gross breach of its treaty obligations.
At the ITU negotiations, India chose regrettably to side with the US. This July, The Hindu disclosed how India’s Central Monitoring System (CMS) intercepts private communication in the same vein as the NSA. Given that India and the US signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2011 to share “cybersecurity information and expertise,” it would not be surprising to learn that much of the CMS’ capabilities stem from our co-operation with the US.
There are then three plausible reasons behind India’s refusal to take up the NSA revelations with the US. One, Prime Minister Singh does not wish to sully the piece de resistance in his foreign policy tab. Two, New Delhi worries about a potential blowback in ties especially on technology transfer, private investment and defence co-operation. Third, the government needs to sustain its own monitoring and intercepting of communication, for which it needs US assistance.
The moral basis for these justifications is shaky. Yet, with all its reservations about publicly airing grievances with the US, India still has a good opportunity to help rein in the NSA’s mandate. Diplomacy offers enough avenues to do so without substantially affecting India-US ties.
For starters, India could revive an IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) proposal from 2011 to set up a UN Committee for Internet- Related Policies (CIRP), and submit it again to the UN General Assembly. CIRP would comprise a rotating group of 50 countries serving in an advisory capacity on Internet governance policies. This committee would be positioned ideally to highlight egregious surveillance schemes of the US and other countries. First tabled at the 66th UNGA session, this idea met with opposition from the West and advocates of Internet freedom. But in light of new circumstances, and great resentment against the US and NSA’s practices, mooting CIRP is sure to generate much discussion at the UN. The IBSA proposal should be coupled with a draft resolution for the General Assembly to adopt: one that strongly denounces practices of global surveillance and use of interceptive technologies against governments.
Second, when Parliament convenes for the winter session, the Congress party — or any party or independent legislator, for that matter — could table amendments to the National Security Act and the Official Secrets Act. Broadly, the amendments would stipulate it is a punishable offence for Indian or India-based Internet and telecom companies to share confidential information about Indian citizens, public-sector institutions, and officials with foreign governments. The enforcement of these provisions, if enacted, would be supervised by a parliamentary committee. The chances these amendments are passed by Parliament are frankly slim. But the parliamentary debate that would ensue will surely include sharp and critical comments on US surveillance programmes, all of which go on the record as the opinion of India’s sovereign body.
Third, India could help formulate a BRICS Charter for Internet Governance, given that there is substantial agreement among member states. Among the provisions in the draft charter could be an idea adapted, ironically, from the George W. Bush administration — the Proliferation Security Initiative. The PSI was a mechanism set up by the US and endorsed by “volunteer” countries to target the shipment of arms to Iran and North Korea. The simple idea behind PSI was this: while the West could do little to influence policy in Tehran and Pyongyang, it held all the economic cards to ensure these policies were not implemented. BRICS countries retain a trump card when it comes to Internet governance: their massive consumer base. To be sure, the charter should not punish or sanction Internet companies that collaborate with the US government for surveillance. BRICS members would circulate an annual “name and shame” list of such companies to multilateral avenues and civil society forums across the world. The negative publicity would do more than its fair share to make IT companies rethink their surreptitious collaboration with the US. These are modest, but not conclusive, proposals that India could articulate to help check the NSA’s surveillance programmes.
They are not aimed at setting back India-US ties — in fact, pursuing such policies would only boost India’s reputation as a pursuer of independent foreign policy.