SC declines urgent hearing to PIL against govt circular on computer interception; TMC MP demands withdrawal in RS

The Supreme Court Thursday declined to give an urgent hearing to a PIL challenging the union government's notification authorising 10 central agencies to intercept and monitor any computer system.

The court merely said "as and when required" after the Public Interest Litigation(PIL) was mentioned for urgent listing before a bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice S K Kaul.

The petition was filed by advocate Manohar Lal Sharma against whom the apex court had earlier in another case imposed a cost of Rs 50,000 for filing a PIL against Finance Minister Arun Jaitley over an issue related to the Reserve Bank of India's(RBI) capital reserve.

When the advocate sought an urgent hearing of his PIL against the notification on interception of computers by probe agencies, the bench asked him whether he had complied with the apex court's December 7 order of depositing Rs 50,000.

When Sharma said he has deposited the amount, the bench told him, "We will see. As and when required we will list the matter."

However, the lawyer made a brief submission claiming there have been large-scale illegal surveillance of computers, including that of the members of the judiciary and their family, and other prominent personalities.

The notification by the Ministry of Home Affairs(MHA) also figured in the Rajya Sabha where a TMC member demanded its withdrawal.

Raising the issue during the Zero Hour, Sukhendu Sekhar Raya expressed apprehensions that the move may turn India into a "police state".

Ray said that 100 years ago there was a movement against the Rowlatt Act introduced by the British government to take away the civil liberty of Indians.

"And after 100 years, we have seen that this government is following the footsteps of British government," he said.

Ray said the government's stand is that there was nothing new in the circular and it was done under the Information Technology(IT) Act and rules.

But at that point of time there was no Supreme Court judgement that right of privacy is a fundamental right, he added.

The TMC member further said the trend of collecting data under the pretext of "some or other reason" is becoming very apparent.

"The decision calling for a blanket surveillance is unconstitutional and poses a serious threat to person's right to privacy and gradually if this continues, this country, which is a welfare state, will be turned into a police state or surveillance state. That is why I demand this circular must be withdrawn," he said.

Ray, however, added that in specific cases, with checks and balances, the government may resort to it.

Ray got support of several other opposition members on the issue.

According to the government's December 20 notification, 10 central probe and snoop agencies are now empowered under the IT Act for computer interception and analysis.

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 commissioner.

In his petition, Sharma termed the notification as "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 PIL alleged that the MHA's "blanket surveillance order must be tested against fundamental right to privacy".

The Centre's move had set off a political storm with the opposition accusing it of trying to create a "surveillance state".

However, the Centre 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.