NSA leaks helping India become 'Big Brother' state?

File photo of a protest against internet censorship in Bangalore Image copyright AFP
Image caption Critics say India has been trying to bring the internet under tighter state control

While the US and Britain fend off accusations of Big Brother-style spying, other countries are learning lessons from fugitive ex-US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden's leaks and, critics say, developing the same kind of mass-surveillance.

India is one of those in the frame.

Its authorities are bringing in new measures against foreign cyber-snooping, including a plan to move internet traffic inside its borders and banning officials from using Gmail and other external email services.

Simultaneously, campaigners say the Indian government is loosening controls on electronic snooping by its own spies.

It is also stepping up efforts to build its own mass-surveillance system, which critics have dubbed "India's PRISM" - a reference to one of the US spy programmes revealed by Mr Snowden.

This is the downside of Mr Snowden's leaks, says Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society, an Indian advocacy group.

"Governments like India are now cherry-picking the worst practices, in a race for the bottom in terms of human rights".

Documents released by Mr Snowden to journalist Glenn Greenwald showed America's National Security Agency (NSA) was hoovering up billions of chunks of Indian data, making the country its fifth most important target worldwide.

'Not actually snooping'

But unlike other states that have discovered the US is siphoning off their secrets, India has conspicuously avoided joining the chorus of criticism. That may be because it doesn't want to draw attention to its own activities.

Its foreign minister Salman Khurshid even appeared to excuse American monitoring, saying it "was not actually snooping".

When the German chancellor Angela Merkel erupted over reports the NSA had been bugging her mobile phone, the Indian prime minister's office was untroubled by the possibility he too had been targeted.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Indian PM Manmohan Singh does not use a mobile phone or Gmail, his spokesman says

"There are no concerns", a spokesman for Manmohan Singh told the BBC, because "he does not use a mobile phone or Gmail".

Many Indian officials do. But from this December the government is planning to bar them from using their private email accounts for any official business - in direct response to evidence of US prying. Instead, they will have to use government email.

The latest reports of even deeper NSA penetration of Google is likely to further spur such moves.

It won't be an easy change to make though, judging from the BBC's own experiences dealing with Indian officials. Many prefer to use Gmail or Yahoo rather than their official accounts because the government email system so often crashes.

More ambitious still is a plan to bring all internal Indian internet traffic inside its borders. Currently, an email sent from say Delhi to Calcutta is more likely to travel via the US or Europe, partly because of the way the internet is designed but also because of a lack of Indian capacity.

But at a summer meeting to assess Mr Snowden's leaks, one of India's security chiefs called for "100%" of emails and files sent between Indians to stay in the country to limit snooping by "foreign elements".

As other governments take similar measures, these changes may not just mean a tougher job for spies but also a more fragmented internet under tighter state control.

Critics say India was already on the road to creating a Big Brother state, long before anyone had heard of Edward Snowden.

Their biggest concern is a secret mass-surveillance project the government has reportedly been building for the past few years. The Central Monitoring System (CMS) is supposed to give security agencies the ability to listen or record all communications nationwide and track individuals, in real time - like some of the US programmes that have been revealed.

If the few details that have emerged are correct, Indian cyber-spies would have even more freedom, bypassing internet and telecom companies and tapping straight into the cables and servers carrying the traffic.

Mirroring America's defence of its spying programmes, the government says the monitoring system is to protect against terrorists and other national security threats. But a lack of concrete information has only heightened fears about its intentions.

A draft privacy bill which was supposed to allay some concerns has been watered down in the light of Mr Snowden's revelations.

According to Sunil Abraham, "India's intelligence agencies argued: Look at what the US can do. Why curtail what we can do?"

In any case, India's spies are not troubled by any parliamentary or judicial oversight. In the world's largest democracy, the intelligence agencies still report straight to the prime minister and the home minister.

India needs to "protect its sovereign rights", says Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court advocate and cyber-law specialist. But these are "unprecedented powers".

Right now, these are minority concerns in India, which is far more consumed with the early political sparring before next year's elections.

Meanwhile, the Indian government is learning many lessons from the NSA's troubles. But Mr Duggal says, "Sooner or later it will have to address the issue of greater accountability."