Centre Wants "Mass Surveillance Tool", Overreach Possible, Warn Analysts

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration, ministries and cabinet ministers have been active on social media, tweeting new policies and interacting with citizens. But

Centre Wants 'Mass Surveillance Tool', Overreach Possible, Warn Analysts

In India's tender, the government seeks the ability to track trends. (Representational)

The government is looking for a company to analyze social media posts to help boost nationalism and neutralize any "media blitzkrieg by India's adversaries."

In a lengthy tender posted online, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said it wants a company to provide analytical software and a team of at least 20 professionals to "power a real time New Media Command Room."

They should monitor Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Internet forums and even email in order to analyze sentiment, identify "fake news," disseminate information on behalf of the government and inject news and social media posts with a "positive slant for India," the tender said.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration, ministries and cabinet ministers have been active on social media, tweeting new policies and interacting with citizens. But this tender suggests the government now wants more powerful social media tools to shape a positive narrative about India and encourage nationalism among citizens in the lead up to state and national elections.

"Essentially, the hub will be a mass surveillance tool," said Nikita Sud, an associate professor of international development at Oxford University. "Nationalism seems to be equated with agreement with the government of the day, or even with the party in power. There are grave implications here for India's democracy, and for the fundamental rights to free speech and expression guaranteed by the Indian constitution."

A spokesman in the prime minister's office did not immediately respond to a call or text. Calls to a spokesman for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting were not answered.

Fake News
India is just the latest Asian country looking more closely at "fake news" and social media. In the run up to a closely-fought election in Malaysia, the government of former prime minister Najib Razak introduced a fake news law that was used to probe his chief opponent Mahathir Mohamad, who won the election and has reportedly proposed to repeal the law. In Singapore, a parliamentary select committee recently held public hearings over the issue of imposing new restrictions on "fake news."

In the tender, the government seeks the ability to track trends, topics and Twitter hashtags relevant to government activities. But it also seeks the ability to drill down and monitor individual social media accounts, create historical archives of conversations and help shape a positive narrative about India.

It suggests the social media tool should use "predictive modeling" and "data mining" to "make predictions about the future or unknown events," including the impact of headlines in international publications such as the New York Times, the Economist and Time magazine.

What "would be the global public perception due to such headlines and breaking news, how could the public perception be molded in positive manner for the country, how could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses," it continues. How "could the media blitzkrieg of India's adversaries be predicted and replied/neutralized, how could the social media and internet news/discussions be given a positive slant for India," the document reads.

"This tender contains a worrying emphasis on isolating and countering individual views," said Saksham Khosla, a research analyst at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's India office. "Will it collect other personal data? The line between surveillance and responsiveness is blurry, and without rigorous privacy safeguards and oversight, the potential for misuse and overreach is high."

The government tender is dated April 25, and noted it was accepting bids until May 17.

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