Big Brother is listening

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By With the government planning to set up a central monitoring system, it can track telephone calls, mobile networks and the Internet. V. Kumara Swamy on how the government will snoop on terrorists — and you
  • Published 21.04.13

Shambu Nath Kow didn’t stand a chance when a posse of policemen swooped on his hideout in a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh early one April morning this year. A Trinamool Congress councillor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, Kow had been absconding after his name came up in the murder of party activist Adhir Maity.

Kow’s mistake was a call he made to an acquaintance, asking to be picked up. That was enough for the police to track him down.

The sleuths at the command centre of the Kolkata Police were following several of his phone numbers. A 15-member team on the hunt was carrying sophisticated equipment that could track him through his calls.

Advances in communication technologies are making the proverbial long arm of the law even longer. With the continuing threat of terrorism and other forms of crime, the government is seeking to intercept voice calls, fax and text messages, emails and so on.

A team of engineers at the government-run Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) campus at Mehrauli in Delhi has been testing the proposed central monitoring system (CMS) that would be able to legally snoop around. Once fully functional, it will monitor telephone lines, phone networks and Internet transactions, among others.

“Authorised law enforcement agencies (LEAs) would be able to monitor any piece of communication taking place anywhere in the country in real time,” says a C-DOT official.

So is Big Brother listening to us?

“Not really,” says a Union home ministry official. “Law abiding citizens will have nothing to worry about. It will only be good for the security of the country. There will be better co-ordination among all the agencies.”

Currently, around nine central agencies can intercept and monitor telephone calls within the country. These include the Central Bureau of Investigation, Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing, and National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO). Now, all these and state LEAs will be able to access the central system. It is estimated that 10,000 phones of citizens and others are being monitored by the central government.

With CMS in place, agencies can bypass telecom operators and directly snoop on the targeted numbers. It is also expected to help ease delays in the relaying of intelligence.

A company commander of the Rashtriya Rifles stationed in north Kashmir recalls an incident in 2008 when his battalion received a transcript of a phone intercept between a militant and his handler from across the border. But by the time the information was relayed to the army unit, the militant had been killed by a team led by the officer. Now, with the CMS having central and regional databases, LEAs at both levels will be able to carry out interception and monitoring in real time.

The benefits of the system are many. It can, for instance, draw up charts based on the calls that a suspect receives. The charts can trace all those who call the suspect, and find links among them, if any. Or, if CMS members intercept a call and get to know about a bomb that has been planted in a troubled area which can be detonated only through a mobile phone, they can, while sitting in Delhi, disable all the phones near the bomb.

The system was supposed to have been in operation by now, but problems continue to dog the ambitious project. For instance, since service providers use various vendors’ servers, the CMS needs compatible interfaces — which will enable it to read data.

To cite a case, though BlackBerry established a server in Mumbai for intelligence agencies to access and intercept communications, India has been unable to decrypt the coded communications. “We forced the BlackBerry guys to establish servers in India with much fanfare. Now we have the data, but we cannot decipher it,” says a former NTRO official.

Another issue is that telecom operators have to provide the government with call detail records of all their users. Operators are pressing the government to fund the operation. They point out that maintaining the call records of some 650 million active phone users is a tough task. In 2010, Bharti Airtel wrote to the department of telecommunications (DoT) saying it could cost as much as Rs 4,500 crore to implement the project.

“We are trying to sort out these issues. We hope to reach an agreement very soon,” says Ashok Sud, secretary general, Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India.

For the system to run, it needs, according to modest estimates, about Rs 4,000 crore. The government, however, has so far invested only Rs 400 crore in the system.

In recent months, C-DOT has been inundated with offers from Indian and foreign equipment suppliers. But the suppliers are not sure if the government is moving in the right direction. “They are trying to re-invent the wheel,” says Lalit Chandak, Span Telecom, one of the leading suppliers of lawful interception equipment in the country. “People are not working in tandem.”

The new system has also raised the hackles of activists. “The government has to maintain a balance between civil liberties such as the right to privacy and law enforcement requirements,” says Praveen Dalal, a Supreme Court advocate and expert on cyber and communication technology-related laws.

Officials say some safeguards are in place. For instance, an intelligence bureau official will be able to access only that information which he has been authorised to seek — and nothing else.

The home secretary has been designated the “competent authority” at the Centre to issue written permissions to agencies that are involved in interception, monitoring and decryption. In the states, home secretaries have been given similar powers. However, exceptions can be made in emergencies.

The CMS has some distance to travel before it is fully operational. The C-DOT official contends that all the doubters would be proved wrong once it is fully functional. “We may be a little late, but we will be there eventually with the best of systems possible,” says the official.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.