In early September, the department of telecom (DoT) issued a circular for the third time to all access service providers about the need for genuine mobile handsets to be connected to their networks.
Mobile phones across the world are identified by a unique 15-digit number called the international mobile equipment identity, or IMEI, which is allotted to the handset manufacturers by five bodies authorized by the GSM Association (GSMA).
It is estimated that as many as 25 million mobile handsets, most of them illegally imported from China and Taiwan, are already working on Indian cellular networks. Many of these handsets are in use by terrorists and criminal syndicates, and the most glaring instance of misuse was the handsets used during the Mumbai terror attacks last year.
The government and security agencies have been working closely with mobile service providers and handset manufacturers to ensure that all handsets connected to India’s networks are genuine and have an IMEI number. They have also been working to strengthen the verification process when providing a mobile SIM card connection. The home ministry has asked DoT to ensure that cellular operators follow the security accreditation scheme (SAS) when purchasing SIM cards from foreign vendors.
As a lot of illegally imported handsets in use in India have been bought by people unknowingly, a special initiative was undertaken by the above consortium to provide such users with an IMEI number under a programme called the genuine IMEI implant (GII), which is being handled by the Mobile Standards Alliance of India. Under this initiative, until 30 November, illegal handsets will be given an IMEI code by paying a nominal fee, and this will be done through a network of 1,600 centres identified across the country.
The recent circular calls for disabling all handsets from the midnight of 30 November after the equipment manufactures and the operators had asked for extensions from previous cut-off dates. The government has asked all the access providers to submit a compliance report by 15 December.
The national security concerns around such illegal handsets are quite serious. Not only can they facilitate communications among terrorist networks, but they can also become tools for remotely setting off explosions and attacks. There have been a few instances of such concerns.
It is also very difficult to trace such handsets in case of thefts.
Some concerns have also been raised about such handsets being bugged by manufacturers in China for remote-listening capabilities. Such fears are yet to be proven, but communications are very critical from a national security standpoint, and so any form of listening capabilities have to clearly be dealt with.
While the step is a bold one, the time limit for compliance should not be extended as this would send out a wrong signal. There are already expectations that an extension will be granted as a large number of handsets have to be provided IMEIs, and it will be difficult to complete this in the available time frame. However, illegal mobile phones are not only a security threat, but they are also a drain on the resources of genuine handset makers. It is estimated that these handsets account for annual losses of almost Rs4,000 crore for the companies. Such handsets are also hazardous, and many battery explosions have actually happened in such handsets.
The deadline is drawing close, and one only hopes that compliance will be met.
Subimal Bhattacharjee is country head in India for General Dynamics. These are his personal views. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org