Extent of NSA metadata swoop suggests access to Indian operators

September 23, 2013 12:27 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:38 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

As fresh details emerge regarding the extent of the National Security Agency’s snooping on India, the mystery of roughly 6.2 billion bits of metadata accessed from India by the NSA through its Boundless Informant programme in one month remains unsolved.

India has roughly 700 million mobile phones, of which less than 5 million have international long distance (ILD) connectivity. These numbers, after adding those called in the U.S., even over an entire year, still do not exceed a few million. Even if all repeated calls back and forth between Indian citizens, business and families were taken into consideration, it would still not exceed a few million call data records (CDRs).

While U.S. carriers have maintained a studied silence on the issue, their position has been that such information relating to calls to and from the U.S. falls within the jurisdiction of U.S.-NSA, similar to the jurisdiction that Indian authorities have over such numbers and CDRs stored with mobile and long distance operators such as Bharti, Reliance, Tatas, BSNL, MTNL, Uninor and Vodafone.

One scenario treads a dangerous premise. The bulk of the 6.2 billion pieces of telephone metadata could relate to domestic telephone traffic between Indian cities. Telecom traffic is almost entirely on the network of large Indian carriers, who also have National Long Distance (NLD) licences for voice or goes through NIXI for Internet traffic. For this data to be a part of the metadata, the NSA must have had some way to access this traffic, either with the collaboration of Indian telecom operators or through some other technical means.

This possibility not only significantly compromises India’s network security but also national security, since domestic call records could relate to top secret calls between politicians, bureaucrats and armed forces officials who lead India’s strategic defence planning. This cohort tends to routinely communicate with others who are not on government dedicated networks.

Govt. denies threat

Meanwhile, the Indian government remains convinced that this episode has not compromised the privacy of Indian citizens in any way.

In response to a question raised by The Hindu on why the government was not taking the U.S. surveillance programs seriously even though it had purportedly compromised the safety of millions of Indians, Telecom & IT Minister Kapil Sibal on Friday said that the U.S. government had informed India that the monitoring only involved looking at trends for indications of aberrations.

“This is not surveillance,” Mr. Sibal emphasised. “However, if we find that content and data has or is being accessed by any other nation, we will oppose it tooth and nail. We are not in the least ambivalent about that.”

Earlier, the government had taken much the same position in Parliament in response to a direct question relating to PRISM.

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