Tech

The Surveillance Politics Behind the Transfer of Andhra Pradesh’s Police Intel Head

Slow institutional response, the lack of data protection laws and absence of political will for surveillance reforms are putting the pillars of Indian democracy at stake.

Update: On Wednesday, nearly 24 hours after the Election Commission transferred the cops, the Chandrababu Naidu government over-turned the order regarding the DG-Intelligence’s posting. The state government has also taken the EC to court over the transfer orders.

In the clearest sign of electoral tensions rising before the Lok Sabha polls, the director general of intelligence and two other superintendents of police in Andhra Pradesh have been transferred by the state’s chief electoral officer (CEO).

This decision from the Election Commission comes after an official complaint was made to the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) by Vijaysai Reddy, national general secretary of the YSR Congress party.

Alleging that the YSR Congress party’s secretaries Talasila Raghuram and Sajjala RamaKrishna Reddy were under illegal surveillance and that their phones were tapped, Vijaysai Reddy has specifically sought four officials be kept out of official duties until elections are completed.

This complaint to the CEC comes after the party’s petition (W.P Crl 461/2019) in the Delhi high court on the same issue was listed for hearing on April 15 – after the day of voting.

In the letter to the CEC, Vijaysai Reddy alleged the Andhra Pradesh police is misusing powers granted for national security and have also started to destroy evidence after the YSR Congress party filed its petition in court.

The letter also states the AP Police have been illegally intercepting phone calls of hundreds of numbers for the past few years with more being added in run up to the general elections.

Cec 25.03.19 Surveillance by The Wire on Scribd

In the last month, the YSR Congress has also filed another complaint against the Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP) app ‘SevaMitra’ for allegedly using government beneficiary data to engage in targeted voter profiling.  

The party filed an FIR against IT Grids India Pvt Ltd, the company which built the SevaMitra application with the Cyberabad Police in Hyderabad. Police raids on the IT Grids Office in Hyderabad and the appointment of a Special Investigation Team for the case by the Telangana government has resulted in a political slugfest between the governments of the two Telugu states.

The TDP has termed it data theft by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and projected the issue as a tussle between Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. AP chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu even attacked Prashant Kishore of the Janata Dal (United) and the India Political Action Committee (I-PAC) by calling him a “Bihari dacoit” for supporting the YSR Congress’s political campaign.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu. Credit: PTI

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu. Credit: PTI

The Election Commission has so far been a mute spectator with regard to the contentious issue of voter profiling.

Complaints over usage of state surveillance for political gain is nothing new to the political parties in the region. In the last few years, every major political party including the TRS, TDP, Bharatiya Janata Party, Indian National Congress, Telangana Jana Samithi and now YSR Congress have filed official complaints to the Election Commission over the behaviour of the Telangana and the Andhra Pradesh state police intelligence units.

During the Telangana assembly elections in 2018, the CEO of Telangana sought a clarification from the heads of both state police chiefs. Both officials denied any wrong-doing, claiming that the rules on surveillance are followed.

A Right to Information (RTI) request filed with office of Chief Electoral Officer of Telangana has not been answered for the past three months.

While the police have always maintained that surveillance is conducted only for lawful purposes, in 2015, a phone call that reportedly revealed AP CM Naidu’s ‘plot’ to overthrow the government in Telangana was illegally tapped and leaked to the media. Naidu then asked for an investigation of the incident in a letter to home minister Rajnath Singh.

Within a week, a group of emails were released by Wikileaks that showed attempts being made by the Andhra Pradesh police intelligence to procure phone tapping tools from the Italian firm Hacking Team. This company is well-known for supplying zero-day tools to majoritarian governments around the world.

An RTI request filed with the home ministry on the status of investigation on this issue has been rejected on the grounds of national security.

These surveillance practices are not just limited to policing or electioneering in the two states. They have effectively become a means of dealing with one another. In 2016, for instance, Telangana filed a police complaint that Andhra Pradesh stole data relating to the former’s submission to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings.

The intense rivalry between the political parties of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, partly driven by identity-based pride, is fueling a complete disregard for the rule of law, seeing them move towards majoritarian rule.

Without a data protection law or surveillance reforms legislated by parliament, the pillars of Indian democracy are at stake.

The Election Commission, the home ministry and parliament have failed the region by continuously ignoring the tensions being built between. By not stopping elected representatives from defecting without any repercussions, the Supreme Court has effectively paved the way for these political parties to use state surveillance as a means to threaten and target leaders of the opposition to defect.

Information is power and it is being used disproportionately to acquire further power by political parties of the region. What is happening in the Telugu-speaking states may become the norm, with other political parties following the same unethical practices.

Every political party in power is eyeing government beneficiary data for targeted campaigning to win again in 2019. If state machinery is being misused for political gain, are we unwittingly laying the groundwork for a digital-driven Emergency?

Srinivas Kodali is a independent researcher working on data and the internet.

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