Govt monitoring social media accounts of citizens since 2016, reveals RTI

In August this year, the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting withdrew a tender through which it wanted to hire an agency to monitor social media accounts of citizens. This was after the Supreme Court warned the plan could lead to India becoming a “surveillance state”. According to the tender, floated in April, the government wanted to contract an agency to monitor social media posts of citizens, including their historical conversations and emails, to gauge their opinions about government policies, and target them with personalised messages to promote positive opinions about government schemes.

A Right to Information (RTI) application now reveals that the ministry had already been monitoring social media accounts and posts of citizens through a “social media communication hub” — for at least two years before the April tender came under the court’s scrutiny. The tender was to extend and upgrade the ministry’s already-running scheme for another year, up until the 2019 general elections.

According to the documents, the ministry had in April 2016 hired a company, ObjectOne Information Systems Limited, to conduct “monitoring services” at the social media communication hub for up to two years. The services included installing a software and “listening tool” that could monitor “individual social media user(s)/account(s),” identify “influencers” and monitor “overall responses to a message, tweet or data.”

The software could crawl “entire social media segment including paid and private media data” and conduct monitoring of “social media sentiments” and segregate “activities into problematic and non-problematic.”

Based on the monitoring, the company generated various daily, weekly and monthly reports, including on “users/ accounts” and “message/ tweets”. The government paid Rs 10.9 million to the company for a year of monitoring services, the documents show.

The ministry had initially denied this information under an RTI application filed by Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in May. It was only after Nayak filed an appeal against the denial that the ministry shared the records with him.

On November 28, Business Standard sent detailed queries to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Object-One Information Systems Limited asking how much and what kind of data of citizens’ social-media activities were collected over two years and what they were used for. Neither the ministry nor the company responded, despite repeated reminders.

Concerns over monitoring

Concerns over misuse of social media data have increased globally in the past year or so, ever since it emerged that the United Kingdom-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica collected the social media data of individuals, without their informed consent, to use them for political campaigning. The company is alleged to have analysed the social media posts of millions of individuals to create their psychological profiles, which it used for targeted messaging to influence voting patterns.

A public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court challenging the April tender of the ministry, on the grounds of privacy violation after reported the tender was meant to institute a software that could create a “360-degree” view of citizens and send them targeted messages to influence their opinions about government schemes. It was also reported later that over 40 Indian government departments had been using a “strategic” tool created by the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi, that conducts mass surveillance of citizens’ social media activities.

Though the I&B Ministry withdrew the tender, several government agencies have been justifying social media monitoring of citizens, arguing that they are only looking into the information posted publicly by citizens. Privacy advocates, however, argue that monitoring even the publicly-posted opinions of citizens by the government could have a chilling effect on free speech.

“If the posting on social media websites is meant only for a certain audience... then it cannot be said that all and sundry in public have a right to somehow access that information and make use of it,” the Supreme Court had said on August 24, 2017, in its judgment by a nine-judge Bench on the right to privacy. India is still debating a law to prevent misuse of online data of citizens without their consent.

Work order issued to the Object-One Information Systems for "Monitoring Services" at the Social Media Communication Hub of the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on March 21, 2016 Screenshot of the original document
Excerpt from the tender document dated February 5, 2016, on the basis of which the Object-One Information Systems was selected for "Monitoring Services" at the Social Media Communication Hub of the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting

The social media communication hub

Nayak had in May filed his RTI application with the I&B ministry, asking specifically for correspondence, file notings and other official documents on the basis of which the ministry took the decision to float a social-media-monitoring tender in April. In response, the ministry denied having specific records of correspondence on the plan. Nayak then filed an appeal challenging this response.

The ministry then shared with him a memorandum of agreement it had signed with its public-sector arm, the Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), to implement a “social media platform” scheme between 2012 and 2017, at a cost of Rs 182.3 million. According to the agreement, BECIL set up the Social Media Communication Hub for the ministry under the scheme between 2013 and 2016.

By early 2016, BECIL floated three tenders to hire agencies to operate and run the social media hub. One of the three tenders was for monitoring services, the contract for which was bagged by Object-One Information Systems. The other two tenders were to contract agencies for covering government events, preparing publicity material for the government’s social-media handles and managing responses/feedback on those handles. The I&B ministry spent 29.2 million on these activities during 2016-17.

According to the documents, the ministry intended to increase its presence in regional languages and wanted to hire social media executives in each district of the country in 2018. It was planning to hire a new agency with more advanced monitoring capabilities for its social media communication hub through the April tender. It is now not clear as to how the activities of social media communication hub would be affected by the withdrawal of the tender.

“I can only maintain what the ministry has told the court. The tender has been withdrawn and we are internally assessing the situation,” said an official in the ministry.

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