The Central government’s recent decision to revive NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid) is a welcome move in the fight against terrorism. The government is also planning to appoint a new head to the NATGRID.
What is NATGRID?
NATGRID was among the ambitious slew of intelligence reforms undertaken in the wake of the Mumbai attacksof November 2008. NATGRID is a centralised agency which stores sensitive personal information on citizens from almost two dozen agencies to be made available for counter-terror investigations. It will be anattached office of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
- NATGRID will become a secure centralised database to stream sensitive information from 21 sets of data sources such as banks, credit cards, visa, immigration and train and air travel details, as well as from various intelligence agencies.
- The database would be accessible to authorised persons from 11 agencies on a case-to-case basis, and only for professional investigations into suspected cases of terrorism.
Why do we need NATGRID?
The danger from not having a sophisticated tool like the NATGRID is that it forces the police to rely on harsh and coercive means to extract information in a crude and degrading fashion. After every terrorist incident, it goes about rounding up suspects—many of who are innocent. If, instead, a pattern search and recognition system were in place, these violations of human rights would be much fewer.
- NATGRID is being opposed by some on charges of possible violations of privacy and leakage of confidential personal information.
- NATGRID claims to be protected by several structural and procedural safeguards and oversight mechanisms including that of external audits and technology safeguards. But, its efficacy in preventing terror have been questioned given that no state agency or police force has access to its database thus reducing chances of immediate, effective action.
Appreciation of the power of digital databases to tackle terror must be accompanied by deep concern about their possible misuse.
- Over the last two decades, the very digital tools that terrorists use have also become great weapons to fight the ideologies of violence.
- Social media and other platforms have become recruitment sites and propaganda machines for terrorist groups, and formal banking channels are used as much as informal ones to transact terror funding.
- The Snowden files have already revealed the widespread misuse in recent years of surveillance capabilities to compromise individual privacy and even violate national sovereignty.
- Increasingly, there is also academic evidence to show that states are applying excessive force and surveillance to tackle terrorism. When so much sensitive information about individuals is available on a single source, the potential for its misuse would dramatically go up.
The NATGRID’s efforts must be placed against the above mentioned realities before the government rushes into reviving it. The poor track record of the Indian security and intelligence agencies on individual privacy and liberty must also be kept in mind. The overdue initiative to revive NATGRID should also be accompanied by action on the need to have effective oversight of intelligence agencies by Parliament or an eminent group.