The government's listening to us

Ever since 26/11, India has made massive purchases of communications intelligence equipment from secretive companies from India and abroad. In the absence of effective legal oversight, it threatens the democracy it was bought to defend.

December 01, 2011 11:17 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:09 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

In the summer of 1999, an officer at a Research and Analysis Wing communications station in western India flipped a switch, and helped change the course of the Kargil conflict. RAW's equipment had picked up Pakistan's army chief and later military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, speaking to his chief of staff, General Muhammad Aziz, from a hotel room in Beijing. “The entire reason for the success of this operation,” the RAW officer heard General Aziz saying on May 29, 1999, “was this total secrecy.” He probably smiled.

For the first time, India had hard evidence that Pakistan's army, not jihadists, had planned and executed a war that had brought two nuclear-armed states to the edge of a catastrophic confrontation. RAW's computers established that the voices were indeed those of Generals Musharraf and Aziz, pinpointed their locations – and undermined Pakistan's diplomatic position beyond redemption.

India's strategic community finally awoke to the possibilities of modern communications intelligence, and unleashed a massive effort to upgrade the country's technical capabilities. A new organisation, the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), was set up; scientists in the Indian Institutes of Technology were tapped, and quiet efforts to acquire technology worldwide were initiated.

Late into the night the 26/11 attacks began in Mumbai, that investment paid off: equipment flown in from New Delhi by the Intelligence Bureau allowed investigators to intercept the assault team's communications with the Lashkar-e-Taiba's headquarters in Pakistan. Police forces across the country have since scrambled to purchase similar equipment, making India one of the largest markets for global vendors.

But this isn't good news: India has no appropriate legal framework to regulate its vast, and growing, communications intelligence capabilities. There is almost no real institutional oversight by political institutions like Parliament — which means there is a clear and imminent danger that the technology could undermine the very democracy it was purchased to defend.

Who is selling?

From a trove of documents obtained by The Hindu , working in collaboration with WikiLeaks and an international consortium of media and privacy organisations monitoring the communications intelligence industry, it is evident Indian companies are already offering technologies very similar to the most formidable available in the world.

Himachal Pradesh-based Shoghi — once blacklisted by the government pending investigation of its relationship with corruption-linked former telecommunications Minister Sukh Ram — has become one of the largest suppliers to the Indian armed forces and RAW. It offers a range of equipment to monitor satellite, mobile phone, and strategic military communications.

Shoghi's SCL-3412 satellite communications link monitoring system can, its literature says, even “passively monitor C and Ku-band satellite compressed and non-compressed telecom carriers from Intelsat, Eutelsat, Arabsat, Turksat.” The company also claims its equipment can automatically analyse “bulk speech data” — in other words, listen in and pick particular languages, words, or even voices out of millions of simultaneous conversations taking place across the world.

India's other large communications intelligence firm, Indore-headquartered ClearTrail, says its products “help communication service providers, law enforcement, and government agencies worldwide to counteract the exploitation of today's communication networks, fight terrorism and organised crime.” The company's brochures say it has portable equipment that can pluck mobile phone voice and text messages off the air, without the support of service providers — service providers who must, by law, be served with legal authorisation to allow monitoring.

The Hindu telephoned officials at both companies, and then e-mailed them requesting meetings to discuss issues raised in its investigation. Neither company responded; one said it was barred from discussing technical questions with the media by its terms of contract with its military clients.

Large parts of the most sophisticated equipment, defence sources told The Hindu , come in from Israel — itself a beneficiary of a special relationship with the United States. “Israeli vendors often tell us that they're charging extraordinarily high prices in return for breaking embargos on sharing these technologies,” one officer said, “but there's no way of knowing this is the case.”

“If we get what we need,” he said, “we're willing to pay — there's no point quibbling over a few million dollars.”

Ever since 26/11, companies like Shoghi and ClearTrail haven't been short of customers: police forces have queued up to purchase passive interception technologies, which allow them to maintain surveillance not just on phone numbers specified in legally-mandatory warrants from the Home Secretary, but on all conversations in an area, or region. There are even cases of out-of-state operations: the Delhi Police have periodically maintained a passive interception capability at the Awantipora military station in Jammu and Kashmir, an act with no basis in law. The Army also has significant passive interception capabilities along the Line of Control (LoC) — which also pick up civilian communication.

Computers at key net hubs

India's National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) has also deployed computers fitted at key internet hubs — the junction boxes, as it were, through which all of the country's internet traffic must pass. Police forces in several States, among them Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh, have followed suit, with smaller variants of the same technology.

The risks of this proliferation of technology have become evident over the last two years. In Punjab, one of four passive interception units is reported to be missing, feared to have been lost to a political party or corporate institution. Andhra Pradesh actually shut down its passive interception capabilities after it accidentally intercepted sensitive conversations between high officials. Karnataka officials also accidentally intercepted conversations involving a romantic relationship between a leading politician and a movie star — while Mumbai has had several scandals involving unauthorised listening-in to phones owned by corporate figures and movie stars.

Intelligence Bureau sources told The Hindu they had been working, for the past several months, to get States to shut down the 33 passive interception units in their possession — but with little success. The pervasive attitude in a federal or quasi-federal polity seems to be: if the Centre can do it, why can't we?

Police do require warrants to tap individual phones, but in practice authorisations are handed out with little thought. In one notorious case, the politician Amar Singh's phone conversations were recorded with the consent of his service provider on the basis of what turned out to be a faked government e-mail. Mr. Singh's personal life became a subject of public discussion, but no one has yet been held accountable for the outrageously unlawful intrusion into his privacy.

Last year, journalist Saikat Datta authored a disturbing exposé, alleging the NTRO's passive interception capabilities were being misused for political purposes — and even activities closely resembling blackmail. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram denied such activities were taking place, although he has no supervisory power over the NTRO — but there has been no investigation.

The fact is that the government has no real interest in rigorous oversight. The Intelligence Bureau, for example, has long been summoning call data records for individuals from service providers with no legal cause, allowing it to maintain a watch on behalf of the Union Home Ministry of contacts maintained among journalists, politicians, corporate figures, and government.

In the absence of a full investigation into malpractices, and proper oversight, there is simply no way of knowing who might, and in what circumstances, have been targeted through passive interception means — and that's the whole problem.

“When an officer on a salary of Rs.8,000 a month has pretty much unrestricted access to this kind of technology,” a senior Maharashtra Police officer admitted, “things will go wrong, and have gone wrong.”

Earlier this year, Congress spokesperson and Member of Parliament, Manish Tewari, introduced a >private member's bill that would enable Parliamentary oversight over the intelligence services — the worldwide pattern in democracies. “The advancement of communications interception warrants that a very robust legal architecture to protect the privacy of individuals needs to be put in place,” he says. “The intrusive power of the state has to be counter-balanced with the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.”

In his case, no one seems to have been listening.

Ever-larger investments

India is set to make ever-larger investments in these technologies, making the case for oversight ever more urgent. In 2014, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), aided by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), is scheduled to launch India's first dedicated spy satellite, the Rs.100-crore communications intelligence satellite, tentatively named CCISat. Like similar systems operated by the United States, Russia, and Japan, among others, CCISat will suck up gigabites of electronic information from its orbital position 500 kilometres above the earth, passing it on to military supercomputers that will scan it for information of military and intelligence value.

From the public sector giant, Bharat Electronics, India's principal electronics intelligence manufacturer, we know that CCISat is just a small part of the country's overall spy technology programme: in 2009-2010, it supplied some Rs.700 crore worth of electronic warfare equipment, and was scheduled to make deliveries worth Rs.900 crore in 2010-2011. Electronic warfare systems, both offensive and defensive, were reported to make up over half its order book of Rs.15,000 crore last year.

Larsen & Toubro, as well as the Tatas' Strategic Electronics Division, have also expanded their capacities to meet an acquisitions drive that Indian military officials estimate will cost the country Rs.22,500 crore (about $4.5 billion) before the end of the decade.

This may be money well spent: there can be little doubt that communication intelligence has contributed significantly to defending India. However, the failure to regulate the technology will have far-reaching consequences for our democracy — and could even mean its subversion.

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