Cyber security experts in the National Informatics Centre (NIC) were left red-faced and also silently impressed by a small time Desk Top Publishing operator, when he managed to dodge through the firewalls to hack into NIC servers.

The startling cyber escapades were brought to light when Hyderabad police busted a gang of seven persons who were charging a hefty fee for getting confirmed appointments for submitting passport applications under Tatkal scheme.

Mercifully, the cyber intrusion was not meant to steal data of Government departments which have their databanks on NIC servers. The NIC is a premier science and technology institution of Government of India which provides e-governance solutions.

The startling success of the DTP operator, whom police identified as G. Lathadhara Rao (36) of Narsaraopet in Guntur district, surfaced when Police Task Force personnel began looking into complaints that no genuine passport applicant was able to get a slot online for submitting passport applications, for the last four months. What began as a routine investigation into allegations of passport agents managing to get confirmed online slots after charging hefty fee, led to unearthing of a major cyber crime.

Police Commissioner A.K. Khan said Rao used some bugs on the Regional Passport Office (RPO) website (www.passport.gov.in) to file online applications. As a result needy applicants always found no slots the next day. Police inquiries revealed that more than 3000 applications were filed through this backdoor method from whom the agents charged Rs 3000 to Rs 5000 each.

Rao, the hacker, was originally employed by Shaik Subhani, a travel agent to fill up passport applications online because of the former’s expertise to key-in data speedily by paying Rs 100 per application. Rao, a holder of PG diploma in Computer Applications, was so sharp that he found some bugs on the RPO website and managed to breakthrough the firewalls of NIC servers. He perfected the art of filing up applications on time slots which were not yet released by the RPO for the next day.

As word spread silently about his ability to get confirmed slots under Tatkal scheme, other passport agents began approaching him and a time came when all the 350 slots were gobbled up by the gangsters within minutes. After the application is filed online in a confirmed slot, the system generates a pdf file of the application which is automatically emailed to the agent.

The arrested included G. Lathadhara Rao (36), Shaik Subhani (34), passport agents -- Mohd Jahangir (45), Bhooma Srihari (56), G. Chinna (29) and Syed Valiuddin (30) of Secunderabad and Kondareddy Penchal Reddy (35) of Chikkadpally.

A laptop with a wireless internet modem, computers and copies of passport applications were seized. “As of now, we have not found the role of RPO employees in the racket,” the commissioner said. Two more agents involved in the racket are at large.