India sets up elaborate system to tap phone calls, e-mail

Published: June 20, 2013

Government says this will help safeguard national security. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI: India has launched a wide-ranging surveillance programme that will give its security agencies and even income tax officials the ability to tap directly into e-mails and phone calls without oversight by courts or parliament, several sources said.

The expanded surveillance in the world’s most populous democracy, which the government says will help safeguard national security, has alarmed privacy advocates at a time when allegations of massive US digital snooping beyond American shores has set off a global furore.

“If India doesn’t want to look like an authoritarian regime, it needs to be transparent about who will be authorized to collect data, what data will be collected, how it will be used, and how the right to privacy will be protected,” said Cynthia Wong, an Internet researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The Central Monitoring System (CMS) was announced in 2011 but there has been no public debate and the government has said little about how it will work or how it will ensure that the system is not abused.

The government started to quietly roll the system out state by state in April this year, according to government officials. Eventually it will be able to target any of India’s 900 million landline and mobile phone subscribers and 120 million Internet users.

Home ministry spokesman KS Dhatwalia said he did not have details of CMS and therefore could not comment on the privacy concerns. A spokeswoman for the telecommunications ministry, which will oversee CMS, did not respond to queries.

Officials said making details of the project public would limit its effectiveness as a clandestine intelligence-gathering tool.

“Security of the country is very important. All countries have these surveillance programmes,” said a senior telecommunications ministry official, defending the need for a large-scale eavesdropping system like CMS.

“You can see terrorists getting caught, you see crimes being stopped. You need surveillance. This is to protect you and your country,” said the official, who is directly involved in setting up the project. He did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.

No independent oversight

The new system will allow the government to listen to and tape phone conversations, read e-mails and text messages, monitor posts on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and track searches on Google of selected targets, according to interviews with two other officials involved in setting up the new surveillance programme, human rights activists and cyber experts.

In 2012, India sent in 4,750 requests to Google Inc (GOOG.O) for user data, the highest in the world after the United States.

Security agencies will no longer need to seek a court order for surveillance or depend, as they do now, on Internet or telephone service providers to give them the data, the government officials said.

Government intercept data servers are being built on the premises of private telecommunications firms. These will allow the government to tap into communications at will without telling the service providers, according to the officials and public documents.

The top bureaucrat in the home ministry and his state-level deputies will have the power to approve requests for surveillance of specific phone numbers, e-mails or social media accounts, the government officials said.

While it is not unusual for governments to have equipment at telecommunication companies and service providers, they are usually required to submit warrants or be subject to other forms of independent oversight.

“Bypassing courts is really very dangerous and can be easily misused,” said Pawan Sinha, who teaches human rights at Delhi University. In most countries in Europe and in the United States, security agencies were obliged to seek court approval or had to function with legal oversight, he said.

The senior telecommunications ministry official dismissed suggestions that India’s system could be open to abuse.

“The home secretary has to have some substantial intelligence input to approve any kind of call tapping or call monitoring. He is not going to randomly decide to tape anybody’s phone calls,” he said.

“If at all the government reads your e-mails, or taps your phone, that will be done for a good reason. It is not invading your privacy, it is protecting you and your country,” he said.

The government has arrested people in the past for critical social media posts although there have been no prosecutions.

In 2010, Outlook news magazine accused intelligence officials of tapping telephone calls of several politicians, including a government minister. The accusations were never proven, but led to a political uproar.

No privacy law

“The many abuses of phone tapping make clear that that is not a good way to organise the system of checks and balances,” said Anja Kovacs, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Internet and Society.

“When similar rules are used for even more extensive monitoring and surveillance, as seems to be the case with CMS, the dangers of abuse and their implications for individuals are even bigger.”

Nine government agencies will be authorised to make intercept requests, including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s elite policy agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the domestic spy agency, and the income tax department.

India does not have a formal privacy law and the new surveillance system will operate under the Indian Telegraph Act – a law formulated by the British in 1885 – which gives the government freedom to monitor private conversations.

“We are obligated by law to give access to our networks to every legal enforcement agency,” said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India.

Telecommunications companies Bharti Airtel (BRTI.NS), Vodafone’s (VOD.L) India unit, Idea Cellular (IDEA.NS), Tata Communications (TATA.NS) and state-run MTNL (MTNL.BO) did not respond to requests for comment.

India has a long history of violence by separatist groups and other militants within its borders. More than one third of India’s 670 districts are affected by such violence, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

The government has escalated efforts to monitor the activities of militant groups since a Pakistan-based militant squad rampaged through Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people. Monitoring of telephones and the Internet are part of the surveillance.

India’s junior minister for information technology, Milind Deora, said the new data collection system would actually improve citizens’ privacy because telecommunications companies would no longer be directly involved in the surveillance – only government officials would.

“The mobile company will have no knowledge about whose phone conversation is being intercepted”, Deora told a Google Hangout, an online forum, earlier this month.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • sm
    Jun 20, 2013 - 1:28PM

    not a big deal.The Mumbai attack was the wake up call and laid the foundation for all this.After the Mumbai attack, many other terrorists were tracked and caught while tapping their phone calls.If you have done nothing wrong,you have nothing to fear.But the system should not be misused.In a country like India,where the country is frequented by our “brothers” from the west and east,and even by Arabs,this was necessary.

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  • Baba Ji
    Jun 20, 2013 - 3:34PM

    Good going … a step in the right direction and we should also follow suit ….

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  • roadkashehzada
    Jun 20, 2013 - 4:02PM

    its funny how india acts after any (major) debacle in US.reminds me my baby son who hits hair brush on his shaved head when i comb hair

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  • indian youth
    Jun 20, 2013 - 6:12PM

    @roadkashehzada:
    it is also funny that when india launched any programme,,,pakistani’s all will criticise that,even if it is better!!!

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  • stars
    Jun 20, 2013 - 9:05PM

    roadkashehzada—I’ll share even more funnier thing with you…
    Here’s a statement from an article that is published today in this very newspaper
    “We never define our expectations versus what we want to achieve for ourselves. Instead, we define our expectations versus whether or not we’re better than India. Losing our internal development focus behind a brutal obsession with “beating” India is the story of Pakistan’s life”

    ANd here is the link to the complete article.– http://tribune.com.pk/story/565521/revelations-from-the-pakistani-cricket-team/

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  • stars
    Jun 20, 2013 - 9:06PM

    @roadkashehzada—
    I’ll share even more funnier thing with you…
    Here’s a statement from an articles that is published today in this very newspaper
    “We never define our expectations versus what we want to achieve for ourselves. Instead, we define our expectations versus whether or not we’re better than India. Losing our internal development focus behind a brutal obsession with “beating” India is the story of Pakistan’s life”

    ANd heres the link to the complete article.– http://tribune.com.pk/story/565521/revelations-from-the-pakistani-cricket-team/

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  • roadkashehzada
    Jun 20, 2013 - 10:40PM

    @stars:
    not talking about beating someone, u think india can beat US in 100 yrs?? i doubt.
    anyway, point is, mini super power syndrome of india. it acts like a mini version of super power. india is no super power. u ask all ur local companies to give u all the data and terrorist will use satellite phones and do wht they want to.

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  • gp65
    Jun 21, 2013 - 1:35AM

    State of the art built in tapping device. Terrorism is struck a blow right in the face. With this technology all internet traffic and phone calls will be scanned and processed by computers which will put forward the exact identity of the suspected person along with his details. The system has a voice scanner that can identify suspected person within seconds. Also, typing characteristics are used to trace down the person.
    What is impressive of this system is the fact that it no only stores vast amounts of data but organizes this data and bring up the relevant information at a moment’s notice. And what’s more – all indigenous state-of-the-art imported Indian technology.

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  • inspire
    Jun 21, 2013 - 2:24AM

    @roadkashehzada- Dude, it would be better if you guys work hard and insist your govt to fulfil the basic needs of your citizens. Supporting terrorist groups and feeling proud of them will lead you nowhere. Take it in positive note.

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  • roadkashehzada
    Jun 24, 2013 - 4:36PM

    @inspire:
    dude u have 1500 people killed last week because of rain. more than half of mumbai lives in slums. dont pretend time square is in india. both india and pakistan govt need to focus on basic needs of their people.
    when india invest billions in afghanistan ignoring its own people, do u really think its for the sake of humanity. do u really think that RAW agents who were involved in terrorist attacks in pakistan in 90s were transferred to education department after 911? (btw2611 is another copy that india does for mumbai attacks). do u really think that india is the most peaceful country in the world and did nothing in 1971?
    i know our successive govt failed to provide basic human needs to general public but one thing that really irritates me the statesmen like points by indian where per person toilet rate is probably lowest in the world.i will accept any criticism from a Norwegian or Swedish

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