Editorial 1/Gov.free.net
Editorial 2/Square one
Electronic tap dancers
Letters to the Editor

There is only one yardstick for the 1999 information technology bill. That is to ask whether its regulations will promote, rather than restrict, human activities on the internet. On balance, the bill deserves a green signal — with some reservations. Even this guarded approval is provided only because the Centre sensibly rejected a number of absurd amendments proposed by the parliamentary standing committee on science and technology. The sensible part of internet regulation lies in safeguarding individual privacy and property rights in cyberspace. Without such protection, the internet will never fulfil its true potential — especially in communication and electronic commerce. For example, India does not presently give a digital signature the same legal standing as one written with ink. This anachronism stands in the way of using the internet to send contracts or legal documents, or even make online purchases. The bill also allows certification procedures necessary to put a stamp of authenticity on electronic documents. Similarly it helps protect electronic property by defining and making hacking illegal for the first time in India.

The real internet regulation debate lies in official attempts to control online content. This is where lawmakers allow their illiberal and populist instincts to combine with a general ignorance of cyberspace. Indian politicians have been no exception. The parliamentary standing committee had recommended cybercafe users be required to register their names and the sites they visited. In addition, all websites and portals should be registered, along with details of their content, with a government agency. This would be not unlike asking every telephone booth operator to ask his clients to write down their names, the numbers they called and a summary of the conversations they had. The law would chiefly become a pretext for harassment. It would be unenforceable and provide no information of consequence to the authorities. Fortunately, such Orwellianism has been dropped. However, an equally objectionable anti-obscenity clause remains. Anti-obscenity regulations are infamously difficult to enforce on the internet. The infotech bill could have more precisely waived the legal liability of an internet site whose customer uses its search engine to access pornography. Vagueness in bills runs the risk of official abuse and endless litigation.

The United States and Europe took different paths of internet regulation. The US believes in hands off regulation. It urges cyberfirms to voluntarily follow privacy and security standards. Europe had opted for strict laws and penalties, bureaucratic controls and global regulators. The latter proved a dead end. Enforcement proved farcical in the anonymous, borderless world of cyberspace. More importantly, such control strangles internet commerce. Last year, the European Union did a fraction of the online business volume that the US did. Unsurprisingly, Japan has adopted the US line and even Brussels now talks of self-regulation. The Indian bill leans towards the US stance. But it should have left content censorship to service providers and makers of software filters. In other words, a parent who wants to restrict his child’s internet access should choose a service provider who gives him that option or buy “nanny” programmes that do the job for him. The Indian state should stay out of content control. It will do a poor job of censoring and a good job of strangling the internet.    

“Collective wisdom” is what the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson, Mr M. Venkaiah Naidu, hopes will carry through the three statehood bills in Parliament. But the latest, and last-minute, hitch over the geographical configuration of Uttaranchal speaks more of a disabling factiousness than of either collectivity or wisdom. Unanimity gives way to multiple divisions. Dissension has arisen around the inclusion of Hardwar and Udhamsinghnagar in the new state. Not only does the dispute involve some allies of the BJP, but it also involves the unpredictable equivocations of the chief ministers of both Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The latter, Mr Ram Prakash Gupta, is sending out vibes that are contradictory. Although publicly supporting the bill, he seems to be echoing the opposition of the Loktantrik Congress Party and the Janata Dal (Rajaram) to the inclusion of Hardwar. This adds a new dimension to the existing dispute over Udhamsinghnagar. With these allies threatening to withdraw support, Mr Gupta’s bewildering vagueness regarding his own allegiances in this matter is particularly obstructive since he now sits on the committee that will oversee the resolution of the Udhamsinghnagar problem. In the context of the BJP’s larger problems with Mr Gupta in UP — leading to the postponement of its organizational elections in the state — the chief minister having his finger in both the Hardwar and Udhamsinghnagar pies bodes ill for the prospects of the statehood bill.

Udhamsinghnagar revives an old dispute, this time with the problematic participation of the Punjab chief minister, Mr Parkash Singh Badal. Mr Badal wants to add to the welter of dysfunctional committees a boundary commission consisting of Supreme Court judges. This voices the Shiromani Akali Dal’s apprehensions regarding the propertied Sikhs in this Sikh-dominated region if it happens to fall within the newly formed state. The equivocation persists in this case as Mr Badal maintains that he is not, in principle, opposed to the creation of Uttaranchal. Similar to the problem with Deoghar in the formation of Jharkhand, the Udhamsinghnagar issue illustrates the combination of political expediency and committee-spawning legislative paraphernalia in which the process of decentralization could get mired.    

The Hansie Cronje episode, the Sankhya Vahini controversy and the proposed information technology bill have all focused attention on electronic security. Whereas United States analog cellular systems can be tapped easily using inexpensive scanners sold in stores, it was thought until a few weeks ago that calls on digital global systems for mobile communication were relatively immune to interception. GSM base stations and message switching centres encrypt calls and assign temporary identities to sender and receiver.

Since GSM’s entry in 1992, its encryption algorithms A5(1) and A5(2) have withstood attempts at cracking. It was thought GSM calls could not be intercepted in transit between originating and destination base stations. The only two times GSM calls were thought to be vulnerable were, one, between the initiating handset and its closest six base stations, and, two, between the destination base stations and the recipient’s handset, both of which are short distances.

To intercept and decode a GSM call, it would be necessary to install special equipment at the base stations and message switching centers — as was done in the Cronje case. This would require the participation of the service provider and be done only by law enforcement authorities. As installed in New Delhi, this equipment can listen to only 180 conversations at a time, but costs Rs 30 million.

Many intelligence agents were surprised when evidence emerged a few weeks ago that even the strongest GSM encryption algorithm, A5(1), was vulnerable. In January, French intelligence succeeded in tapping the GSM phones of British defence officials in southeast United Kingdom through 10 listening posts in northern France.

This was a remarkable feat. One, the distance involved was over 75 kilometres whereas GSM cell sizes are only a few kilometres across. Further, to escape detection, the output power of the French posts was very low. Two, it appeared the French had cracked A5(1).

The French thus took revenge on the Anglo-American intelligence initiative, codenamed Echelon, which uses the UK’s Chicksands facility to eavesdrop on French officials as well as on French defence contractors such as Thomson-CSF and Dassault. In 1995, Echelon intercepted communications between Airbus Industrie and the Saudi government. It passed the information on to Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, who came in with a lower bid and won a $ 6 billion order. It also spied on French negotiators at the 1993 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks.

The UK-US agreement of 1947 created the global interception system, Echelon, which captures and analyzes phone calls, faxes, e-mails and telexes transmitted over microwave links and all satellites. It is run by the US’s national security agency, the UK’s government communications headquarters, Canada’s communications security establishment, Australia’s defense signals directorate and New Zealand’s government communications security bureau. Germany, Japan, Norway, South Korea and Turkey provide locations for listening posts, but have no say in the alliance.

Indian domestic and international communications, as well as INSAT satellites, are targeted by the joint NSA/GCHQ listening post at Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean, as well as by Australian stations at Geraldton and Bamaga and New Zealand’s stations in Waihopai and Tangimoana.

Echelon intercepts about three billion satellite transmissions, phone and fax calls, e-mails, very high and ultra high frequency radio messages, cellular and paging signals, mobile data links, internet downloads and telemetry transmissions every day. It records these, amounting to over 65 per cent of global telecom traffic, indiscriminately. It then sifts through them using a set of voice, optical character and data recognition systems, artificial intelligence programs and context engines, codenamed Dictionary, to find matches with a lexicon of keywords, phrases, phone numbers, individual names and places.

While the accuracy of detecting keywords is above 99 per cent for e-mails and 90 per cent for fax messages, it is only about 55 per cent for verbal conversations. According to the NSA’s former director, William Studeman, if 1,000 genuine keywords appeared during an hour’s conversation, there would be at least 300 missed key words, plus 220 false alarms. About 10 messages per million are considered significant enough to be analyzed further.

Since terrorists would obviously not utter words like assassination and bomb but would refer to them indirectly, NSA recently developed a system using N-gram statistics to identify the topic of a conversation even if the listed keywords are not used. Surprisingly, NSA applied for a patent for its N-gram system this April although this would entail its having to make its details public. NSA says the system works for any language.

NSA had earlier patented a program called Voicecast in May 1995 which can recognize an individual’s characteristic voice patterns using hidden Markov modelling statistics, so that every call made by that person can be transcribed. However one expert has said the accuracy of Voicecast in recognizing the voices of suspected west Asian terrorists was only 15 per cent. In one amusing instance a Canadian diplomat’s wife was investigated because she told an Arab friend on her cellphone, “My son really bombed in the school drama yesterday.”

Echelon may lose its effectiveness in coming years for two reasons. First, telecom carriers are shifting away from satellite and microwave communications to optical cables. Cables provide much greater bandwidth and immunity to interference. Optical cables cannot be tapped since they do not leak radio frequency signals. Unless the optical cable passes through a collaborating nation, the only place where these signals can be intercepted is at the optoelectronic repeaters. Gaining physical access to these sealed repeaters is not easy since they would be in hostile countries or undersea. Moreover, intercepting equipment requires its own heavy power supply.

Second is the increasingly wide availability of encryption systems despite US export controls. Companies such as Hushmail and ZipLip provide encrypted e-mail accounts to anyone, anywhere for free. At current levels of decryption technology, it would take the NSA several days to decrypt e-mail messages sent to or from these accounts.

Echelon has also been affected by budget cuts following the end of the Cold War. It has started purchasing most of its equipment from commercial vendors to cut costs. Its two major suppliers of transponder survey equipment — which identify and classify satellite downlinks, demodulators, decoders, demultiplexers, microwave radio link analyzers, link survey units, and carrier analysis systems are two US firms, Applied Signal Technology of California and IDEAS Operation of Maryland.

The proposed nationwide datacommunications network, Sankhya Vahini, has been attacked by political activists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Congress and the communist parties as being a security threat. On the contrary, it will enhance India’s security since it is an optical cable network with end to end encryption. Thus it is not vulnerable to interception by Echelon, in stark contrast to the vulnerability at present of INSAT satellites, Videsh Sanchar Nigam gateways and the department of telecommunication’s intercity microwave links.

It is also good for India’s security that increasingly larger percentages of India’s overseas communications will take place through international optical cable systems such as Fibreoptic Link Around the Globe and Project Oxygen and less through INSAT and Intelsat satellites. However, calls made to and from cellular phones will continue to be vulnerable as will the “secure’’ radio sets used by elite security guards.    


Forgive and forget

Sir — Sonia Gandhi could not afford to lose the chance of playing the ever-forgiving Indian mother to an enfant terrible (“Sonia cheers up ‘sorry’ Jairam”, May 16). So Jairam Ramesh, for all his sins of dancing to the tune of rival politicos or castigating the party and its mistress, was acquitted. It is not that Sonia Gandhi’s quality of mercy was always beyond question. Try and remember Sitaram Kesri with his cap in his hand, almost prostrating for forgiveness, before being hounded out of the all India Congress committee for having dared to put up a challenge to the Nehru-Gandhi clan. Or recall the more recent dismissal of the infamous trio from the Congress for questioning the “Indian” credentials of the Italian bahu as party president. If mercy has flown, it is because Ramesh is no immediate threat to Sonia Gandhi. But it is also because losing Ramesh would mean a further depletion of the Congress think tank. Not that this unduly worries a stoic leader. But was there a surer way of gleaning Ramesh’s gratitude?

Yours faithfully,
Jaggoseni Sen, via e-mail

They grind too slow

Sir — The judgment of the division bench of the Supreme Court presided over by the judges, D.P. Wadhwa and Ruma Pal, on the treatment meted out to witnesses, brings into sharp focus the appalling state of criminal justice in our country (“SC witness wrath erupts on courts, lawyers”, May 3). The verdict hits the nail on the head in identifying protracted litigation as the main factor responsible for the miscarriage of justice.The inordinate delay involved in the legal process, as the judgment rightly points out, has its roots in an unholy combination of the “unscrupulous lawyers and a sluggish state machinery” .

One can say from experience that some lawyers deliberately prolong cases. They do this by securing a series of adjournments on one pretext or another. As a result, their earnings increase. Most of the witnesses get fed up and ultimately give up, and the culprits get away. Only in rare cases is justice done. The system of criminal justice, as it operates today, deters those who seek justice and encourages those who want to escape it. From the harrowing experience I have been going through as de facto complainant in a six year old criminal case now pending trial before the judicial magistrate at Alipore court, I cannot but fully agree with the observation of the judges of the Supreme Court.

To speed up justice, computer-linking of the subordinate courts with the high court and monitoring of evidence, as suggested by Wadhwa and Pal, would be helpful. It is high time that the criminal procedure code, the Indian penal code and Evidence Act, which continue as a legacy of our colonial past, are suitably amended to keep pace with the needs of a dynamic society.

Yours faithfully,
Bijoy Sinha Roy, Calcutta

Sir — Nirmalendu Bikash Rakshit’s “A pile on in the road to justice” (May 1) gives a true picture of the judicial system in the country. The success of a democracy depends a great deal on the functioning of the judiciary. But in India, the system does not work as efficiently as it should.

India inherited its legal system from the British, but built on it an edifice based on protectionism to promote its grand ideal of socialism. Instead of bringing relief to the people, this has only encouraged corruption. The core principle of the Constitution, the rule of law, which implies equality before the law, is unworkable.

The mounting cost of litigation is another obstacle to the delivery of justice. To overcome these problems, the least that could be done is reducing the number of court holidays by half, and especially discontinuing the summer vacation. There should be a fixed minimum number of judgments that a judge should deliver every year. Plea bargaining should be allowed, which will reduce the load on courts. In short, procedural changes should be made immediately. Unless the huge gulf between the judiciary and the masses is bridged, justice will continue to be delayed and denied.

Yours faithfully,
Niloy Sinha, Murshidabad

Sir — Litigants are happy to know that the Delhi high court has termed the recently concluded lawyers’ strike against some judicial reforms “illegal and unethical”. The high court bench aptly remarked that lawyers have no right to strike as it infringes on the litigants’ right to speedy trial. When we file suits, we pay the stipulated court fees. Yet the court verdict is unnecessarily delayed. Cases drag on with frequent adjournments, much to the glee of advocates.

If citizens have the right to justice, courts should see to it that the fundamental right is not denied. The judiciary should also put pressure on the government to fill vacant posts of judges in the lower courts and of justices in the high courts.

Yours faithfully,
Prasanta Kumar Ghosh, Barasat

Sir — The comptroller and auditor general of India should look into the huge wastage of public funds in the judicial system.Today’s needs require that some changes be made. For example, there is no sense in continuing with the British legacy of long paid vacations for courts, giving judges their salaries, perquisites and other facilities at public cost for no work during the vacations. British judges in India needed long vacations to visit their homeland during the excruciating summer. This princely facility is unaffordable now as crores of court cases are kept pending while judges take their summer break. Judges should be at par with other government servants and their holidays should be the same as those granted in government service.

The Delhi high court, reportedly, spent a huge amount of public money to buy expensive Maruti cars for its judges. The auditor general should investigate how such a costly decision was taken so that judges could enjoy a luxury. And henceforth, all expenses of the judiciary should be screened.

Yours faithfully,
Subhash Chandra Agrawal, Dariba

Strike back

Sir — In the recent past, we have had two taxi strikes, allegedly in protest against police excesses. I would like to ask the presidents of the two taxi unions the following questions.

Have you ever reported to the police a taxi driver who refused to go to a particular location? Have you ever driven down Theatre Road in the morning, during office hours, and admonished taxi drivers for parking cars on both sides of the road near the former Bata Head office? Did you ever go to the Taratala crossing in the morning and remove taxis, buses, autos and other vehicles parked within 100 metres of the main crossing, creating severe traffic blocks during rush hour? Have you ever been to Howrah station before 6 am or after 10 pm and reported taxis charging five times the normal fare? Have you ever cancelled the membership of a taxi owner whose car belches out black smoke? Did you ever publicly admonish a minibus driver for stopping his vehicle on the road, perpendicular to the curb?

If not, don’t you really think it is better to set your own things right before complaining about the police? In fact, most people who drive on the road would feel that the police is doing too little, forget about excesses.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Das, via e-mail

Sir — People have lost patience with the frequent strikes called by transport operators. The government agrees to raise fares, without checking if public buses abide by the rules laid down by the regional transport authority to ensure passengers’ comfort and safety. Passengers are herded into these buses like cattle. Then, it is routine for taxi drivers to refuse passengers and charge more than the metre. Actually, the government should take stern action against unjustified strikes, even cancel licences, if need be. Most citizens of Calcutta will welcome such action.

Yours faithfully,
Diptimoy Ghosh, Calcutta

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