Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Placing information in a grid after Pathankot

Operationalizing NATGRID is vital as big data gains in importance

The Pathankot attack had not yet ended when the first accusations and counterclaims about intelligence and operational lapses were exchanged—although the former will be a difficult charge to make stick this time around. The political and security establishment has danced this dance before, most notably after the Mumbai attacks in 2008. At the time, a slew of measures were announced to redress the glaring gaps in India’s security preparedness. But most of them are yet to be properly implemented. Of late, New Delhi has been making noises about operationalizing the National Intelligence Grid, perhaps the most vital of them—increasingly so as big data gains in importance.

NATGRID was to serve as a valuable platform to trace suspicious cross-border movements of individuals like David Headley, who had made several trips to India before the Mumbai attacks. It was to become a centralized database with sensitive information on individuals collected from 21 sources, which included data on immigration, banks and the telecom sector, in addition to data from intelligence agencies. In a move to expand its database, last year it was even given access to information on money laundering and black money collected by the Financial Intelligence Unit.

NATGRID will help to collate scattered information into a transparent, accessible, integrated grid and do away with the inefficiencies associated with information asymmetries that hitherto delayed counter-terror operations. This is all good. But NATGRID’s chequered history shows that it must be handled with care.

In 2012, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) allocated 1,003 crore for Phase I of the NATGRID project. In 2014, Phase I of the project was given an additional two years for completion. But June 2016—the end of the two-year extension—looks like another deadline that will be missed.

After the term of the first chief executive officer of NATGRID, Raghu Raman, ended in 2014, it has only had ad hoc directors. The official building for NATGRID got the approval of the ministry of environment and forests two years after its foundation stone was laid. In short, the institution which is fundamental to information sharing among agencies came to a standstill because New Delhi couldn’t fill a vacancy or get environmental clearance.

It is expected that in the absence of a clear line of control, NATGRID will fall under the control of the Intelligence Bureau (IB). Since agencies like IB and Research and Analysis Wing are not institutions established by Acts of Parliament, this raises the additional question of accountability. It is diametrically opposite to systems in countries like the US where intelligence agencies answer to Senate and House committees.

Another aspect which calls for attention is the fact that among the 10 agencies which are permitted to access information from NATGRID in Phase I, no state agencies have been included. If states are to actively contribute towards updating the NATGRID database in the spirit of cooperative federalism, they should be among the ones who benefit from it.

Privacy is always an issue when set against intelligence. NATGRID by no means invades the privacy that individuals currently enjoy. It is merely a technological interface which allows for quick transfer of valuable information to legitimate authorities.

At the level of execution, NATGRID also faces issues like consolidating data from a huge population, lack of compatibility with data sets in regional languages, risk of spies ratting out vital information to outside sources and security from external attacks. The story of WikiLeaks and leakages from SIPRNet, its US counterpart, still haunt the cyber world.

India is not far from the days when cyber warfare will become its primary security issue. In September last year, the website of the government of Kerala was hacked by Pakistani hackers.

In its present form, NATGRID suffers from many inadequacies, some due to bureaucratic red tape and others due to fundamental flaws in the system. If New Delhi takes enough measures to ensure that information does not fall through the firewalls that guard it, NATGRID has the potential to become India’s go-to grid for a 360-degree perspective to prevent and contain crises.

Will NATGRID help counter terrorism in India? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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