Amid a raging controversy over its plan to screen social media, the UPA government has added and notified the external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), to the list of eight agencies to intercept phone calls, e-mails and data communications.
Highly placed government sources said the RAW's addition to the list is aimed at giving it a legal cover for intercepting phone calls, e-mails and voice and data communication domestically. This is the first time that the R&AW, since it was formed in 1967, has been authorised to tap phone calls. The sources said the notification was issued by the Home Ministry recently.
The move came nearly two weeks after The Hindu carried a series of write-ups, working in collaboration with WikiLeaks, on communications intelligence capabilities. The sources said the RAW would not be able to deploy its communication interception equipment at international gateways to snoop on all forms of data, be it international telephony emanating from India or any form of electronic data including e-mails.
The sources pointed out that investigators had tapped conversations of terrorists, who attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2008, getting instructions from their handlers in Pakistan. “For such an evidence to be admissible legally, it was felt that it must be given legal sanctity,” the sources said.
Significantly, it was only last year that the Union government faced flak from courts on phone tapping, prompting it to tell the States to adhere to the guidelines strictly.
On the questions of a citizen's rights and privacy, the Home Ministry had reiterated that law enforcement agencies could tap phones of any individual for security or operational reasons for 72 hours even without permission from the Union Home Secretary or the State Home Secretary.
In such a case, if the agency concerned does not get permission, it will have to destroy the tapped conversations within 48 hours, official sources said.
All requests by the Central government agencies, including those under the Finance Ministry and the Central Bureau of Investigation, need the approval of the Union Home Secretary. But senior officials admit that the goof-ups have put a question mark on the integrity of the system which is not foolproof. They do not rule out the possibility of more innocent citizens being put on the list of suspects.