Mass Surveillance in India

From IFF Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search
Mass Surveillance in India
Presenter(s) Asandhimitra, Rebel Dalit
Title(s) Education and Trainings Director, Executive Director
Organization(s) Equality Labs
Project(s) Internet Freedom for Dalits, Adivasis, and Bahujan
Country(ies) India, US, and UK
Social media
2017 theme Regions and Groups

Beyond the vision of India as the largest democracy in the world is the superstructure of one of the largest surveillance systems in the world. With 1 in 6 people in the world being India and 1 in 4 being South Asian, the surveillance that happens in our region has global ramifications. During our session we will bring together speakers from the frontline of internet freedom in India who are religious and cultural minorities. This includes Dalits, Adivasis, Muslim and Christians. We will introduce participants to the scope of the problem , strategies of movements to protect their internet freedom, and the next steps towards connecting the issues of this region to the larger global movement for privacy rights.

Who is the easy target?

We have seen this administration escalate its targeting leaders and movements from Indian South Asian cultural communities. This includes movements against fossil fuel extraction, movements for Dalit rights, and Dalit student movements. These movements have been subject to physical assault and surveillance by state and central government agencies, booked with false crimes, offices have been broken, and individuals disappeared, and worse. The digital attacks connected to these incidents include wiretaps, Internet Service Shut Downs, phones seizures, general surveillance, as well as targeted phishing attacks of key leaders.

At this juncture when we have nothing but to hope, it becomes more important for us to connect and build our communities together to fight back. It becomes more important that we develop more comprehensive technology and curriculum that can be used by everyone. This panel will discuss the various measures and strategies that the collective (Equality Labs) has developed/is going to develop in order to minimize the threat as we, the marginalized communities across the globe, begin to explore and engage with the new developments in technology to connect, grow and stand together with the others.

Session notes


Before starting the session we have to tear down the stereotypes about india. We're not going to talk about taj mahal and Bollywood.

We're trying to build a movement starting around new leaders. India population is 1.33 Billion, 1 out of 6 people in the world are from India. If you don't talk about them when trying to address mass surveillance you'll be missing an important piece of the puzzle. Indian population is not homogenous, it is shaped by different cultures and languages, so localisation will need to be part of the scope from the start. Defining solutions that are only available in English will not be good enough.

Out of the total population 462 millions are internet users, so around 35% of the population. While this is an issue it is also an opportunity: there is a potential to build a privacy literacy from the start instead of having to work backward with population that are already used to tools that compromize their privacy or security.

India have a very active population on social media. 191M of users are on Facebook, this is the 2nd largest user base. Facebook expect that India will become number 1 country soon. Therefore the future of these solutions will be shaped in the global south, so it's important that we get involved.

There is gender imbalance on Facebook in India with a user base of 24% of women only. This imbalance is central to the issues around harassment online. Online bullying is a reality in india and women are very much a target. Also India has a young population and this is also an important part of equation.


The ruling political forces in India have been harassing and bullying opposition in an around caste and social issues in general. The political party of the prime minister, the BJP, often uses hate speech and polarize around religion. Leaders of RSS close to the BJP are saying for example: "our target is to make india a hindu nation by 2021. The muslims and christian don't have any right to stay here". This is why we are not afraid to say this is clearly fascism.

When it comes to the geopolitical context at the borders of India, china and Pakistan are central players. The economic corridor, the north west region from punjab to kashmir, is important regional surveillance area for multiple nations. The americans are also involved in surveillance in this area because of the war in Afghanistan and its close impact with the geopolitical situation in Pakistan. Similarly the Chinese economical interests in this region are very clear, with impacts notably on surveillance around business transactions.

The laws around surveillance in India are old and outdated. However we do have some interesting baseline we can work from such as the Article 21 of Constitution "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law". The interpretation of what life means is not limited to physical life but is understood to include freedom of thought. From there we can translate freedom of thought in the virtual space to the right to privacy.

The challenges however are many. The central government through the existing legislation around the attribution of licences for radio, phone and internet providers, has allowed them to create a vast system of surveillance. Moreover when an existing branch of the administration is not available or willing to implement a new measure, it is still possible for the government to hire private company outside democratic control to further this agenda.

The freezing for accounts for foreign funded NGOs is a reality, as well the rise in physical violence of activists on the ground. We're seen people prevented from travelling and not being to express themselves in person outside of the country. There are multiple reports of intimidating calls, from the foreign bureau to make sure people do not speak up about certain issues abroad.

India is a big 2nd hand market for android phone. A lot of these phones are compromised with Chinese malware at a root level.

Facebook is complicit and a great help when it comes to identify, target and censor people. People are being charged with sedition simply because of their Facebook post and the company will not do anything about it. On the contrary they will be reported by Facebook to the relevant authorities that will use that information to suppress them. Indeed some people are marked as terrorist for their political views, such as documenting the use of pellet guns in kashmir, and reported to international authorities preventing them to travel. On the other hand hate speech is thriving, as we have seen with the case of Facebook user celebrating the murder of a Dalit man murdered in India. When these people are reported they are not banned in a similar fashion. The bottomline is it’s not a technical or localisation issue (e.g. where Facebook won’t be able to track posts in tamil for example), we are talking about a blatant lack of accountability issues of the corporate tech. They do not want to offend the current governing forces and are actively working toward making them comfortable.

There is also not a strong framework for data privacy collected by the government. The Aadhaar initiative is collecting fingerprints, face and iris of people, it also capture a lot of other data such as their caste or religion. It was pitched to help people get bank accounts, subsidies for gaz, help with phone. It was sold as not mandatory but in practice it is. In the past we have seen similar files used to identify minorities in order to implement cast apartheid or worst. Corruption is endemic and happening at all levels, people in the administration can and will use this data for personal gains.

Cast is one of the oldest system of oppression where a small portion of population have more access to knowledge, resources, capital and land, and can oppress people that seen as inferior. In USA you would not talk about surveillance without talking about race. In India if we want to fight surveillance we need to think actively at intersection of caste and surveillance issues.

Project Mukti

We did pilot security trainings in the country, helping people directly monitored by the government for example when they are currently charged with seditions charge or generally vulnerable because of their political views. We have a few languages covered in our toolkit thanks to our core team composition but we need help to reach more people in the south especially where most of the Facebook users are.

Next steps: training center, build leadership with people that understand privacy and security. We're also launching our security curriculum, that we hope to localise as much as possible: 6 languages for start, with languages from north and south.


Do you have any information about internet website being blocked? We have seen when there is a context of political tension on campus for example, some sites are punctually blocked. We've also seen hashtags being throttled. Last year 800 URLs where blocked. It is not done by DNS anymore, as it was done initially by Reliance. Now, since you can see a page telling that this site is blocked, this is done at a ISP level with the government providing a list of sites that needs to be blocked.

What about bots or trolls paid by the government? The administration is very technologically savvy. They will indeed hire trolls and setup bots to harass organization online. We've seen this happening on Wikipedia as well, where a lot of article are being rewritten to fit the views of the regime and their preferred treatment on one subject.

What about the technological solutions? Because India is such a large market, the corporation do not want to compromise their ties with the current government and completely occult. This is not a technological problem, the issue is that corruption is present at every level. Even for if we have open technical architecture or open data initiatives since we have so many level of corruptions it is not possible to solve most issues technically.

Has the situation been worst since the last government came into power? Our personal experience is yes. We have directly experienced people disappearing or committing suicide because of institutional pressure. Teachers who speak a different voice than the official line are at great risk of loosing their tenure. We have documented case of this happening because of their critical views on religion. These are not just anecdotes, from our perspectives there is a systematic attempt to destroy the livelihood of people who disagree with the regime.

What are other government doing about that? There is not sign of the foreign power trying to solve this issue. On the contrary the USA and India are collaborating to perform surveillance of the diaspora under the umbrella of fighting terror, where the government of India get to choose what keywords are to be flagged for surveillance.

Can you tell us more about what you do around malware? We do have longer security training than other communities because we take the time to collect and document the malware on phones. Most cheap phones can not be cleaned because the malware is at the root level. It is endemic and prevalent on cheaper phones from China. We are working on a report to show the current state of affair on that level.

Format Panel Discussion
Target Groups Developers, Activists, Journalists, Community members etc.
Length 1 Hour
Skill Level Novice
Language English

Session Outputs

Next Steps

Additional Notes

Relevant Resources