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Is your phone being tapped?
[May 01, 2010]

Is your phone being tapped?

May 02, 2010 (Hindustan Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- An ad posted on ClickIndia Neighbourhood classifieds under Noida (April 17, 2010) solicits "entire world" to buy the "GSM Cell Phone Interceptor". The ad reads: "Multi-channel passive GSM interception system is designed to intercept voice and SMS...from a GSM network... works as a passive equipment intercepting data directly from the air making it undetectable by the cellular operator as well as the suspect." The contact is called 'Shoghi', a member since 21st November 2007, and if you click on "user's ads," you get to see many more ads posted under the name. Shoghi provides among other things, "surveillance solutions for defense industry, police forces and government use." HT got in touch with the company but in vain.

Shoghi communications is an ISO 9001:2000 IT company with its headquarters in Shimla. A note on its website says: "All the system/equipments offered by us are for end- usage by government or ministry of defense or its related agencies only and not for private or commercial usage." But why would they put it on neighbourhood classifieds is a million dollar question for which there will be no easy answers.

The phone-tapping controversy rocked Parliament after Outlook magazine told us that the UPA government has been eavesdropping on cell phone conversations of various opposition leaders. But one Google search and the shock will seem unwarranted. There are many small-time companies that specialise in COMINT i.e communications intelligence technology with various products for phone tapping. The law enforcement agencies like police, intelligence are their eager, potential customers.

"These are mainly small but high-tech companies. Big companies wouldn't want to dabble into this, as snooping is not considered good or moral. You neither see their ads nor they are not predominant sellers in the open market. Buying and selling is all a hush-hush affair, there won't be any sign of a government transaction," says Major Mrinal Suman, Head, Defence Technical Assesment and Advisory Service, CII.

The deals are all secret but not the availability of products it seems. An Indore-based company registered with NASSCOM, ClearTrail, proudly announces: "Our products intercept data and voice communications across millions of simultaneous connections." There are other International players too, who bag most of these deals. Verint is one such Israeli firm with an office each in Gurgaon and Bangalore. An Indian spokesperson of Verint said, "It's not something openly spoken about. These are matters of national security." HT awaits answers from its headquarters in Israel.

While most of these products are imported, there are some companies trying to develop the technology indigenously. A small company based in one of the IT hubs has been working on it for four years now. "Ninety percent of our project is done. We are now working on how to crack the encryption code of Airtel, the only mobile service in India with encryption," says a developer on condition of anonymity. The company has already showed demos to few state police departments and is trying to improve their products according to the feedback.

The products are meant only for government agencies but there is no way to make sure. "Corporate espionage is on the rise in India due to the contest for corporate control. If they can acquire bullet proof vehicles without any permission, why not the surveillance products," says Kunwar Vikram Singh, chairman, association of private detectives of India. At around Rs 7 crore and sometimes less, it is not beyond the reach of big corporates.

The large number of government agencies looking for information makes regulation of phone tapping next to impossible. "Earlier 80 per cent of our job was human intelligence but now it is replaced by technical intelligence. Phone tapping is a routine thing and all governments do it. It should be ideally done for purposes of national security but in our system power is very prone to be misused," says a former Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) officer.

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