Amid surveillance concerns, DoT avers call data being used to improve service quality

March 18, 2020 10:42 pm | Updated March 19, 2020 11:49 am IST - NEW DELHI

Representational image.

Representational image.

Amid questions over possible surveillance and violation of privacy following bulk call data records being sought by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the government on Wednesday asserted that the data was only being collected to analyse and improve the quality of telecom services and ruled out any form of surveillance.

The explanation follows a letter dated February 12 from Rajan Mathews, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India, to the Telecom Secretary Anshu Prakash, wherein Mr. Mathews had noted that some local units of the DoT “continue to seek voluminous CDR details from the licensees on regular basis in contravention” of the standard operating procedure for providing CDRs to law enforcement agencies.

In a statement, the DoT said that given the numerous complaints about quality of service on the country’s telecommunications networks including call drops, echo, cross connections, incomplete or poor caller experience, the DoT had developed a software tool to analyse big data and accurately ascertain call drops in any area.

“For this purpose, data on calls made from mobiles in any tower coverage area is analysed to ascertain calls terminated within 30 seconds and made again,” the department said. “DoT will be better equipped to take up such cases and areas with the telecom service providers based on actual data. For this purpose, total data of calls made during any particular time period from the identified cell phone tower locations from where the complaints are received is collected to enable analysis,” it added.

The government stressed that this data was anonymous and did not contain the names of either the maker or receiver of calls. “There is no infringement of privacy of any person. No personal details are collected. There is no tracking of any phone number,” the DoT asserted. “There is also no question whatsoever of ascertaining the content of the call... The data collected is anonymised. There is no surveillance of any kind,” it added.

The mobile phone services industry body had in its letter added, “in all such monthly as well as ad hoc bulk CDR details sought by various LSA units of DoT, neither the intended purpose for requirement of CDRs is mentioned nor the identity of the subscriber(s)... Further CDRs sought for specific routes/areas may lead to allegations of surveillance, especially in a State like Delhi having numerous VVIP zones having offices and residences of Ministers, MPs, Judges etc.”

Observing that the government was already empowered under Rule 419 of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951, to access such anonymous data for improving network quality, the DoT asserted: “Moreover, DoT has also put in place an in house standard operating procedure so that any authorisation of such access to call drop data can be approved only by very senior officers. Further, it has been decided to seek such data only for short time period i.e. three to six hours normally covering the peak load of traffic on the network for any cell tower.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Mathews said the department had discussed the issue with COAI in the wake of the letter and explained the reasons for seeking the data. “Being satisfied, we have cooperated with the DoT to source the information sought by DoT to improve network quality and address call drops,” he added.

Mr. Mathews reiterated that the data was anonymised and did not contain the names of either the maker or receiver of the calls. Hence, there was no threat of infringement of privacy of any person. Personal data and tracking of phone numbers were not sought, he added.

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