06 December 2011

Govt is Watching Our Moves Through Spy Tech

Bangalore: The Indian government is monitoring its citizens, says the eye-opening article by The Hindu. The Hindu, working in collaboration with WikiLeaks, was able to get comprehensive information regarding mass interception by the government on its citizens.

Julian Assange, Founder of WikiLeaks, said that, irrespective of the kind of mobile device one carries, one is a potential target of spying. This is how stark the threat from a booming multi-billion dollar global mass surveillance industry is, Assange said as he released a cache of 287 files providing a rare glimpse into how the industry was operating without any checks. The Spy Files, spanning 25 countries, are first of a series of sensitive data that WikiLeaks is planning to publish in the coming months.

N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, has expressed concern over a fast growing and completely unregulated surveillance industry in India, where at least 2 Indian companies were selling surveillance technologies without any regulation. He also said that, “We are very concerned about our privacy violations.''

The 2 Indian companies that have made their way into the list of Spy Files are Himachal Pradesh-based Shoghi and Indore-headquartered ClearTrail. Shoghi has become one of the largest suppliers to the Indian armed forces and RAW and offers a range of equipment to monitor satellite, mobile phone and strategic military communications. 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 organized crime.” The Hindu called officials at both companies and then e-mailed them requesting meetings to discuss issues raised in its investigation. However, neither company responded; with one saying that it was barred from discussing technical questions with the media by its terms of contract with its military clients.

Ever since 26/11, companies like Shoghi and ClearTrail haven't been short of customers as India made massive investments in communication intelligence equipments. The intelligence and police services now listen to phone, satellite and computer communication systems of terrorists and hostile intelligence services, like the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). New technology acquisitions allow India to monitor hostile forces not only inside the country but also across the region. India's National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) has also deployed computers fitted at key internet hubs - junction boxes, through which all of the country's internet traffic must pass.

Technologies like these have helped trace the alleged terrorists arrested by the Delhi Police on the charges of having executed a series of bombings in 2010 and in several cases, terrorist attacks have also been pre-empted in this way. But, as is the case with any form of technology, these technologies have their drawbacks too. In India, unlike in other democracies using these technologies, there is no intelligence regulatory system to safeguard citizens’ rights and privacies. The very technology that had helped our government catch a handful of terrorists, can also monitor us - our emails, our phone calls, internet pages we visit, text messages we send, online purchases we make, bank transactions we engage in and the like, all of which potentially end up in their records.

The Hindu’s investigation has showed that these fears are real. In several states, police forces and intelligence services, using systems that can scan through mobile phones and email traffic, search for threats being picked up in private communications. Andhra Pradesh shut down its passive interception capabilities after it accidentally intercepted sensitive conversations between high officials. Karnataka officials had also accidentally intercepted conversations involving a romantic relationship between a leading politician and a movie star, while Mumbai has had several scandals involving unauthorized listening-in to phones owned by corporate figures and movie stars. In one case, a senior politician was even subjected to a blackmail bid. In another notorious case, 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 but no one has yet been held accountable for the outrageously unlawful intrusion into his privacy.

What is more alarming is that in 2014, India is going to invest about 22,500 crores in these technologies. 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, named CCISat, which will suck up gigabytes 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 values.

Our fellow citizens have been very clear and candid in voicing their opinions regarding these outrageous actions of the government. People are very right in saying that such technologies are a blatant violation of our privacy, freedom and democratic rights. Such high-tech communication intelligence gadgets should be used only against internal and external threats and not for unauthorized and widespread electronic eavesdropping of private communications. The data used by the Unique Identification Authority of India and the National Population Register are also being seen as extensions of the same problem as personal and private data of the public is being made available to government authorities.

Assange said that such technologies are a threat to investigative journalism and that “The only way we are going to win this war is by developing counter-surveillance systems.'' Assange also warned that with entire populations being subjected to surveillance, nobody anywhere in the world is safe anymore.

What seems to be the irony here is that an organization (WikiLeaks), considered an unconstitutional one by many countries, has been instrumental in taking constructive measures to safeguard our rights, while our own government has turned a blind eye towards the concerns of its own people. Times like these make us question as to whether we still live in a democratic nation and whether our government is our true representative.