Every day, at a secret facility of the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) near Kala Ghoda in south Mumbai, a team of 18 operators sits peering through massive amounts of data coming in through undersea cables from across continents into an international gateway facility several kilometres away in Malad. The cables carry voice and internet data from Europe to Asia and vice versa, and by tapping into them, Indian intelligence is now playing Big Brother with a vengeance.
It all began in 2005 as India started catching up with the communication revolution that had swept the world a decade earlier. Since then, Indian intelligence has acquired capabilities to intercept cellphone and landline conversations, smses, e-mail, chats and all forms of electronic transmissions. It puts pretty much everyone under surveillance. And as more and more transactions and conversations go online, it puts at the government’s disposal a wealth of information about its citizenry, enabling it to keep close tabs on them. What was to be used against enemies is now being deployed against citizens.
These systems are frequently deployed in Muslim-dominated areas of cities like Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad. The systems, mounted inside cars, are sent on “fishing expeditions”, randomly tuning into conversations of citizens in a bid to track down terrorists. Unfortunately, though, such expeditions more often end up violating the privacy of individuals than in catching extremists. “We have deployed the system in places like Seelampur or Jamia in Delhi or the old city of Hyderabad on a few occasions, in the hope that we might pick up critical conversations,” says an intelligence official. “But most of the time, we end up getting private calls or lovers speaking to each other.”
It is this arbitrary, and often illegal, method of functioning that has made many argue for the need to make our agencies more accountable. Says Congress MP Manish Tewari: “We must look at reforming the intelligence community in India by bringing in an act of Parliament that not only makes them accountable, but also puts them on a sound legal foundation. By ensuring a parliamentary oversight, we can prevent the misuse of our agencies which, in turn, will also make them more efficient.” He further points out: “Illegal tapping triggered reform in British intelligence. In the US, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ensures great accountability, and American courts have now declared all the tapping done after 9/11 illegal.”
Since then, the NTRO has purchased at least six systems and deployed them in Delhi, while the IB has eight such systems in the capital. Codenamed ‘Fox’, the device costs about Rs 7 crore and can intercept mobile telephony by grabbing the signals from the air as soon as a call is made or received and the signal is sent from the cellphone to the nearest cellphone tower.
“Depending on weather conditions we can detect and intercept a GSM mobile number at least 2 km away even though the number is not available to us,” a senior intelligence official told Outlook. “All we have to do is to set up a mobile monitoring system by placing the device in a car and then drive around the likely areas of the phone we want to put under surveillance. Once the call is detected, the device hooks on to the number and continues to track and record calls made or received. Sometimes, we take a voice sample from a TV recording and use it to identify the cellphone if we are monitoring a public figure.”
The licence conditions of long-distance telephony ensure that all telecom operators have to be part of the surveillance regime. “A telephone company has to set up a 20 ft by 20 ft room with eight computers in every city,” a senior telecom official revealed to Outlook. “Each computer belongs to a designated agency, which can use it to access all data, phone call records and, if necessary, even record calls of a particular number, provided the Union or state home secretary has authorised it.” The cabinet secretary calls for a meeting of the secretaries from the ministries concerned to review the ongoing tapping every month. While this is supposed to be a check on illegal tapping and monitoring, the new off-the-air GSM/CDMA systems ensure that even this modicum of check is rendered irrelevant.
As a result, there is nothing you can hide from the government. “We can dig into everyone’s life,” an intelligence official points out, “be it political and corporate leaders, journalists, social activists or bureaucrats. We can track anyone we choose.” A case in point is the deployment of the off-the-air GSM/CDMA monitoring systems in and around the Taj Hotel at Man Singh Road and the Le Meridien in Delhi. It picks up conversations between prominent corporate leaders discussing sensitive business dealings or private liaisons.
The surveillance raj has prompted several companies specialising in monitoring and data mining to enter the Indian market. “Israeli, Ukrainian and Russian companies offer the best systems. We have purchased several systems from Israeli companies Comverse and Verint,” says an intelligence official. A Bangalore-based firm has also played a major role along with psu Bharat Electronics Ltd in developing these systems,” says a source. But since NTRO is not authorised to do this monitoring, it works under the cover of the Intelligence Bureau.
Unfortunately, the new technology has managed to overcome the antiquated laws governing interception and monitoring. Besides the Telegraph Act and the Information Technology Act, a December 18, 1996, Supreme Court judgement has also set the guidelines for tapping phones and monitoring communication. However, in the absence of laws with an oversight mechanism of India’s intelligence agencies, there is very little control by the political masters, Parliament or, at times, even the bureaucracy. “A joint director in charge of security in the IB could go about tapping phones with impunity if he chose to do so,” a home ministry official told Outlook.
Justice Rajindar Sachar, former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, who pleaded the 1996 case against illegal tapping filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, had argued for a judge to issue warrants to monitor communication. “But unfortunately, the 1996 judgement doesn’t have any judicial officer in the oversight mechanism. In the US, a senior district or high court judge clears all tapping requests,” says Sachar.
Senior Supreme Court lawyer Rajeev Dhawan feels that technology has rendered the ’96 apex court judgement irrelevant. “Article 21 of the Constitution says that you cannot do anything that invades the life and liberty of people. Yet, intelligence agencies are doing it routinely through illegal tapping and monitoring of communications. We’re very concerned.” Dhawan also points out how this surveillance has now led to more abuses of democratic and judicial principles. “Look at the rendition and forced disappearances conducted by the CIA. These are the consequences of illegal tapping and surveillance, and it must stop.”
Law researcher Usha Ramanathan of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies puts the problem in a larger perspective. “Today a false encounter or torture is not a crime, and the state is pushing the boundaries of human rights with impunity. We have now moved away from fundamental rights to fundamental restrictions.”
Such tapping of Nira Radia helped a lot.
In any case, all internet centers at least in Hyderabad as I know it, do not offer you any privacy, irrespective of your invented Pseudonym.
Now every internet center asks for your photo identity card and records the number of computer and the time. You cannot escape. Another secret work is that of IB department in internet centers. It copies the hard disks of all, and then copy all this in to computers in their offices. In their center, a software blanket is applied so that it would search for some key words used by terrorist gangs or Maoist organizations or their sympathizer. This is known as "techint"
But the keyword itself is what their "humint" or informers have to find out. Police informers only have to know suspected people's slang and idiom and keywords of exchange.
If a key word is found in any particular e-mail for example, the entire email is downloaded into a database and then read in detail. A colleague of mine, worked in such a center.
But terrorists have found many ways to circumvent and one of the old one is what I can tell you. They send a picture that is all. Now if software is used, this picture can be converted in to full-fledged e-mail. It is as simple as that but this is for sure an old method, definitely outdated. This is because a picture like *.jpg for example is also "0" and "1" and you have many readymade soft wares which convert.
Another method they use is that they do not send any e-mail at all but still they would type an email. What they do is that a terrorist or his sympathizers would open an email account and they type the mail or else stores it as a document. Now suppose this was done by a Pakistani. His Indian counterpart would know his password and simply open Pakistani's mail and read the mail or a document stored in the email account. The mail was NOT sent, so software blanket and search for it would be meaningless.
Many Maoists as well as sympathizers of Naxalites inside police department never use a cell phone or any phone at all. They use couriers who personally carry a written word on pieces of paper. Another safe method they follow is an organized meeting in rural areas so that they can exchange information face to face. The important point is that the meeting takes place only to exchange information!!
Even comments written as blogs online which off course includes Facebook, twitter etc., are read by IB officers under cover of a blogger on the site. Anyone can guess that Outlook cannot be an exception even if it wants.
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