The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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9/11 nerves: Terror in TV box

New Delhi, Sept. 12: This one from the CAS-battlefront of Mumbai can make information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad a ripe candidate for the anti-terror law!

Maharashtra deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal has written to the Centre stating that the set-top boxes mandated by the conditional access system for cable television can be used by terrorists to disrupt law and order. What is more, the letter was sent on “9/11” — that is yesterday — the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Towers that has become the global symbol of the scourge of terrorism.

There is a major security concern, Bhujbal has written, with the set-top boxes. “I understand that once CAS is implemented it will be easy to reach any individual. Specific messages can be passed on to particular persons... the police cannot be stretched for this,” he wrote from Mumbai that is still shaken from the blasts last month.

As the Union information and broadcasting minister, Prasad is the pilot of the CAS regime that makes routing of pay channels through set-top boxes compulsory. For all practical purposes, the regime has fallen flat in Calcutta, Mumbai and Delhi and in Chennai it is in a twilight zone. And, now, with a deputy chief minister alleging that CAS will allow elements to subvert the law, Bhujbal insinuates that the I&B ministry is abetting crime.

Stumped by the missive from Maharashtra, ministry officials admit that “this was totally unexpected”.

Prasad has shot off a response immediately. He has written to Bhujbal that the set-top boxes are meant only for viewing pay channels. If a provider of the boxes — such as MSOs and cable operators — allow services such as SMS, text messaging and MMS or Internet through the set-top box, specific licences have to be obtained. The CAS regime was envisaged, he said, after suitable consultations with the home ministry and licensing other services through the set-top box would need approval from it.

Licensing will follow, Prasad wrote, only after the authorities are satisfied with the service provider’s credentials and after monitoring equipment is installed by the business.

Set-top boxes can allow value-added services over and above decoding pay channel signals. But they have to be “enabled” just as a Sim card enables a mobile phone user to send voice, data and messages. As such, set-top boxes fall in the category of “big brother technology” that can be used by agencies to track consumer practices.

Bhujbal has also complained that adequate consultations have not been held with state governments before CAS was mandated. The I&B ministry has called a meeting of the chief secretaries of Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai to discuss the “prognosis” for the set-top box regime.

There is an unstated conviction that CAS cannot be implemented elsewhere before it rolls out in Delhi and that will happen only after the Assembly elections, dates for which have not been announced.

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