Govt to come down hard on unauthorized phone taps

Govt to come down hard on unauthorized phone taps

New Delhi: The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), one of the agencies monitoring economic offences, could initiate action to curb rampant telephone tapping by the end of this month.

It will start by targeting high-profile individuals, companies, private detective agencies, even some state-owned firms, that have imported 1,174 telephone surveillance devices over the last three years, said a senior government official with direct knowledge of the development and who did not want to be identified given the sensitivity of the subject.

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The move comes after the government, stung by a series of controversies over leaked transcripts and recordings of telephone taps, decided to crack down on the unauthorized use of telephone surveillance devices, including those by its own intelligence and enforcement agencies.

Not only will it confiscate all equipment used for unauthorized taps, it will treat future possession as a criminal offence. For now, the government has not pressed criminal charges against anyone.

While on-air phone taps are permitted after approval by the home secretary, only the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), an intelligence agency that focuses on electronic surveillance, is allowed off-the-air taps, and even this is restricted to areas around India’s geographical borders.

Under the provisions of Lawful Interception and Monitoring System, the telecom operator has to facilitate surveillance. On average, 6,000-8,000 telephones are tapped by various agencies at any given time with the permission of the Union home secretary.

Another 10,000 phones are monitored by state governments.

Officials from the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Central Economic Intelligence Bureau (CEIB) and the cabinet secretariat independently confirmed that DRI would crack down on tapping devices by the end of the month.

“Approximately 250 devices are identified as off-the-air GSM interceptors since the Israel and Chinese companies who have manufactured these equipment deal in GSM interceptors. Others, we actually do not know. We are purely relying on the disclosure made by the importers," added the government official mentioned in the first instance, explaining how DRI identified the number of tapping devices.

GSM is India’s dominant technology platform for mobile telephony.

Off-the-air GSM monitoring systems are used for interception and monitoring of voice and SMS traffic in a passive mode, without interfering with the cellular network’s operation. These machines, according to a Web search, are readily available abroad and cost between 2 crore and 8 crore.

“On-air interception means recording signals as they travel from tower to tower. The intelligence agencies have dedicated systems within the telecom operator’s office to do that. Off-the-air you enter the spectrum and tune in to the communication. One can do it anywhere if you have the equipment," said a telecom expert who asked not to be identified.

In a related development, the government has directed several law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including IB, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Enforcement Directorate, DRI, the Income-tax department, CEIB and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to surrender their own off-the-air GSM telephone surveillance devices, said the senior government official with knowledge of the development and the officials in other agencies.

The government’s decision to get tough with tapping and tappers comes after an amnesty scheme, announced in January, failed to elicit a response; unauthorized users were required to surrender tapping devices to the Telecom Enforcement, Resource and Monitoring wing of the department of telecommunications.

Despite repeated attempts, the telecom department did not divulge details about the number of devices surrendered so far. Mint could not independently verify the exact number of companies, agencies and individuals that used the voluntary scheme, but learns that the response wasn’t very encouraging.

DRI had handed over a list of 1,174 entities that had imported the telecom devices to IB in February.

“We are completing the verification of the end users of these equipment. About 60 are owned by corporates, including some top executives and private detective firms," said an IB official who did not want to be identified.

An internal audit report based on a scrutiny of NTRO’s log-book submitted to national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, shows that the agency’s surveillance devices, contrary to norms, were deployed more often in the national capital than in border areas, said a cabinet secretariat official who did not want to be identified.

According to serving and retired officials from India’s intelligence agencies, originally only two agencies, IB and RAW, were authorized to intercept telegrams, letters and telephone calls.

An amendment made to section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act in 1971 enabled DRI to intercept these, although the notification for this came only with the imposition of the Emergency in 1975.

The equipment to do this was manufactured by a small firm based in Bangalore and cassette tapes were used to record the conversations. The level of sophistication of these machines did not change till 1992 and the standard machine could tap 10 lines.

Modern devices have been procured by various agencies since 2004.

In April, a committee led by cabinet secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar, recommended new rules for tapping telephones to the prime minister.

S.D. Pradhan, former chairman, joint intelligence committee, said: “Telephone surveillance is done under the provisions of the Telegraph Act and it does not provide for passive interception, but we need to amend it to include the change in environment. But I agree there is a need for strict monitoring to avoid CEIB kind of misusing."

In 2003, the first large-scale misuse of tapping became evident after phones of two government officers were tapped to charge them with corruption by CEIB.

Following this, the agency was stripped of its “tapping" powers.