Thursday, April 29, 2010

Govt promises to amend laws to protect privacy

New Delhi: Controversies over phone tapping and the role of lobbyists in influencing decision-making reverberated in Parliament for the second day in a row, with the government announcing that it would amend rules to protect citizens’ right of privacy.

“Government is committed to the right of privacy. If rules on phone tapping are inadequate, we will amend rules, we will add to it. We will bring more stringent safeguards,” home minister P Chidambaram said while replying to a debate on the telephone tapping controversy.

The lively debate had members debating the challenge the state faces in combating technology-savvy terrorists without allowing the security agencies to impinge on privacy and civil liberties. It saw the government acknowledging the concerns expressed by the Opposition.

Thus, Chidambaram agreed to examine whether National Technology Research Organisation (NTRO) — the agency equipped with interception technology and which has been accused of engaging in political surveillance — could be put under political oversight. He said the agency, which works under the national security advisor (NSA), could be put under a minister who would be accountable to Parliliament.

The home minister also promised a through probe into the charge of NTRO tapping phones of politicians, and agreed to share the findings with the House. Chidambaram also agreed to take a fresh look at the government’s position that tax violation constituted a valid reason by itself for somebody’s phone to be tapped. Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley had strongly argued against the provision, saying that mere suspicion of tax evasion could not be equated with threat to public safety. To do so would be fraught with serious repercussions, Jaitley argued, citing the SC judgment in the PUCL case.

Chidambaram did not agree with Jaitley’s interpretation of the SC order. Hecontended that the very inclusion of agencies dealing with economic offences — Enforcement Directorate and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence — among those which are authorised to intetercept phones in accordance with the procedure laid down shows that the safety of the financial system is recognised as an important concern.

He, however, agreed to revisit the issue when Jaitley persisted with theargument that electronic surveillance merely on the ground of suspicion of taxevasion could have serious consequences.

traded. When Jaitley and others took a swipe at the government over alleged role of lobbyists in determining the make-up of the government, Chidambaram retaliated by recalling the episode when former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prevented by lobbyists from having a finance minister of his choice. The reference was to last minute substitution of Jaswant Singh by Yashwant Sinha, though Chidambaram named no names.

The home minister said that no government would function without intelligence, as he underlined the threat of terrorists adept at harnessing new advances in technology.

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