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Trying To Beat The Tap Trap:

Technology is an antidote to privacy. The rich and the famous do try and escape it. In one of her taped conversations, Niira Radia instructs Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's wife Rajathi's charted accountant to call on her Tata Docomo number. Since lawful intercept of a cellphone can only be done by writing to the concerned telecom service provider, Radia evidently felt secure on a number provided by her client, Tata.

Not surprisingly, Radia's Idea and MTNL numbers only were intercepted. Anil Ambani's aide Tony Jesudasan uses only Reliance cellphone numbers. Sources say both the IT Department and CBI wanted to tap Jesudasan's number but decided against it for obvious reasons. Singh had a friend in Vodafone's senior management who warned him of all his four numbers being monitored by the Delhi Police, thus giving him time to destroy incriminating evidence.

There is a twist in this tale. A majority of surveillance equipment was acquired to keep track of organised crime and terrorism. Intelligence agencies rue that phone tapping and interceptions are now yielding diminishing returns because terrorists have found new ways of staying ahead of them. Terrorists are increasingly using BlackBerry phones while their handlers are using the new generation Inmarsat-4 satellite phones, making their interception next to impossible, at least for now.

Though Inmarsat-4 phones can be monitored off the air, the conversation is available only in encrypted format. Voice and data can be effectively monitored only at the Inmarsat-4 switch in London and New York, where it is available in decrypted form. That is the reason why India still has to depend upon British or US intelligence agencies for information. Voice over Internet Telephony (VOIP)-based Skype and Google mail and chat are also extensively used by terrorists, smalltime criminals and corporate houses. Free software can be downloaded on smart handsets and computers to encrypt calls and mails.

Commercially available software like Cellcrypt has been found to be most effective in securing conversations and messages. Compatible with all smartphones, Cellcrypt aids in personalised encryption of all communication. The only catch for completely secure communication is that handsets at both ends should have the software. If only one of the handsets has installed the software, the communication will be available in decrypted format at the other end.

Central Oversight And The Big Brother Server:

The home ministry is now setting up what could be called a 'Big Brother server'. This move, done in sync with new laws on active phone interception, greatly enhances the Government's powers to snoop on individuals. At the heart of this plan is a Centralised phone and data monitoring centre costing Rs 800 crore.

The Centre will improve coordination among the seven agencies authorised to tap phones and also with the states. "It will help centralise data collation and give the Central agencies actionable intelligence in more or less real time,'' says a home ministry official. It will also generate data about the number of phones being tapped countrywide.

The monitoring system will connect the small towns and cities of a state to its capital, and all the state capitals will be linked to a centralised monitoring centre in Delhi via fibre optic cables. If the IB wants to monitor a phone at Gonda in Uttar Pradesh, they can do so sitting in Delhi after sending necessary authorisations to the service provider. It will even make the process of tapping much smoother for the states since the capital city will be connected to the local switchboards.

"It also increases the responsibility of the service provider since he is bound to deliver the traffic wherever asked,'' the official added. It will, for the first time, allow the Government to seamlessly monitor a suspect's cellphone across several networks and across the country. An intelligence official calls this the "nuclear weapon" of phone tapping software. "Implemented in its full form, it will give us the precise location of any individual within a cellphone network," he says.

This is why the Government plans to maintain the mandatory audit trail file, which will have electronic footprints of the number tapped-the agency given access for how long and if the conversation was recorded and if any copies were made. This protocol is followed worldwide and the audit file is crucial in the courts of countries where phone taps are admissible as evidence.

"In India, the protocol ensures no unauthorised copy is made and the system remains transparent," says an intelligence official, dealing with the project. Moreover, access to the audit file will only be through a valid password available with any of the Central agencies. Even service providers will not have access to it to rule out any tampering.

In an attempt to collate tapped data, the home ministry has asked the states for all records of phone and Internet interceptions. It also plans to supervise the working of the mandatory oversight committees on electronic surveillance in various states. At the Central level, the oversight committee is headed by the cabinet secretary and includes the law and telecom secretaries.

With the home secretary approving most requests, the oversight committee is a mere formality. It rarely questions phone or Internet monitoring. Oversight committees on tapping in the states is tardily implemented. A few states don't even have these mandatory committees. The states that do have them rarely meet. Law and order being a state subject, the states are not bound to share the information.