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The State of Surveillance in India: The Central Monitoring System’s Chilling Effect on Self-Expression

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Washington University Global Studies Law Review


In June 2013, Edward Snowden shook the world’s confidence in personal privacy when he leaked top-secret information about the United States National Security Agency’s (“NSA”) surveillance program, “Prism.” Snowden’s leaks shattered the global perception that citizens of the world’s leading democracy are free from government intrusion, and it was no surprise that privacy issues took the international stage. At the time of Snowden’s leaks, it was little known that, across the globe in India, the largest democracy on the planet had had its own massive surveillance program in the works since 2007 —a program that would rival the NSA’s. It would enable the Indian government to monitor in real time 900 million mobile and landlines and 160 million Internet users. Interestingly, the scheduled launch of India’s surveillance program in April 2013 received little attention from the press; nonetheless, its rollout was timely in light of the global conversation on government surveillance that ensued just two months later.

This Note will attempt to contribute to the growing body of discussion on government surveillance, specifically with regard to India. This Note will explain why India’s surveillance program, formally called the Central Monitoring System (“CMS”), poses a severe threat to privacy and democratic free expression. More specifically, this Note will discuss how CMS will prompt a paradigm shift in the way speech is regulated in India from its current system of “private censorship” through telecommunications providers to a system of widespread self-censorship among Indian citizens whose speech is chilled by CMS. Finally, this Note will identify potential barriers to public debate surrounding CMS that will inhibit popular demand for government accountability and reform.