NEW DELHI- Indian nation has emerged as the only nation across the globe that is under an immense intelligence surveillance and the private life of almost every notable citizens is being constantly intruded by intelligence agencies that are running the biggest ever illegal phone tapping operation of country’s history, reveal the findings of The Daily Mail.
I could sense someone was listening. It was exactly the kind of feeling you get when somebody is surreptitiously watching you,” says Indian state Himachal Pradesh’s Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, revealing startling details of what could emerge as one of the biggest illegal telephone tapping operations across India.
Convinced for more than four years that his telephone conversations were being recorded during the BJP government headed by Prem Kumar Dhumal, Singh secretly constituted a team of trusted police officers on the very day the Congress returned to power in the hill state on December 20, 2012. But even he wasn’t prepared for the size of the scandal that emerged. Computer hard drives his men confiscated from the Himachal Pradesh Police’s Criminal Investigation Department and Vigilance Bureau premises on December 24 and 26 last year contained recordings of nearly 200,000 phone conversations between 2009 and 2012.
Singh says these pertain to 1,500 phones belonging to Congressmen, senior bureaucrats, journalists, businessmen and judicial officers. “Even BJP leaders opposed to Dhumal were not spared,” he says, reluctant to reveal specific names since this could jeopardize the investigation. “It was like the kind of operation the Gestapo would have conducted during World War II.”
Politicians, cutting across party lines, are in a tizzy. In Delhi, a private detective was sent to jail last month for trying to access call details of Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley. Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who was caught in a sex tape controversy in 2012, now gets his office and house regularly checked for bugs and hidden cameras by counter-surveillance specialists.
The discomfiture of bureaucrats is apparent as they half-jokingly enquire if the pen in your hand is fitted with a camera or if you are secretly recording the conversation. And if they are tech-savvy, they prefer to ‘Skype’ instead of talking on the phone-though a meeting face-to-face is the best option. Corporate houses use the services of cyber experts and private detective agencies on a regular basis to ensure the safety of their systems and protection against bugs.
The Daily Mail’s investigations reveal that possibility of 1,000-odd off-air tapping machines, imported by India under Open General List (OGL) between 2008 and 2010, is adding to the paranoia. Most of them are now in unknown hands and deployed for listening in on conversations. Off-air tapping is as rampant as it is impossible to curtail. Not requiring government approval or the intervention of the service provider, a small machine the size of a Thinkpad, costingRs.5-7 crore, can be placed just anywhere and pick up conversations from mobile phones, both GSM and CDMA. It can be used for monitoring by homing in on the target’s voice, location or phone number, if it is known.
National Technical Research Organization (NTRO), an agency not authorized to monitor phones, was found using these machines in the Capital in 2010. While it was supposed to deploy its 10 machines near the borders to monitor international cell phone traffic, it was found using them in the heart of the Capital in the area around Parliament, North and South Block, and Chanakyapuri’s diplomatic area. An NTRO whistle-blower blew the lid on the misuse. It was after the NTRO scandal that the Government removed the off-air interception machine from OGL and placed it in the restricted items list. The home ministry asked all private individuals and corporate houses to surrender these machines in June 2010.
Only 24 importers came forward to give up the machines. When the Government tried to investigate, it discovered that many of the addresses and companies did not exist. It is suspected that some corporate houses and private detective agencies are still using these machines. And they cannot be detected since they do not emanate any signals and are designed only to receive and record.
These investigations further indicate that it is not just private companies that can misuse the machines. The Indian Army has 35 such machines, and former Indian Army Chief General V.K. Singh formed a special unit of its Military Intelligence (MI) to snoop on Defense Minister A.K. Antony and senior bureaucrats, using just 2 of these machines. Obviously, he could not go through the proper channel and thus never sought any approval of the Union Home Secretary to tap. According to the investigations, there are only 10 government agencies of India that are authorized to tap phones after and that too after an appropriate approval.
The Daily Mail’s investigations indicate that in the absence of any credible intelligence and a lax attitude towards investigation, phone taps have become the biggest source of information to nab criminals and terrorists. Sources in the Home Ministry claim there are around 10,000 phones under surveillance at present-which include 700 international numbers-and 1,300 email IDs. These belong to bureaucrats, military officials, businessmen, NGOs and journalists in addition to suspected criminals, terrorists and their sympathizers, drug dealers, hawala operators ( Money launderers) and income tax evaders.
In the Niira Radia case, which led to the unearthing of the 2G scam in 2010, the Income Tax authorities were actually tapping the publicist’s phones for suspected tax evasion by her companies. The Union home secretary can authorize phone taps only for Central agencies. Various state governments also order phone taps and they seem to be working in a more arbitrary manner, with political spying being the order of the day.
In another case of political phone tapping that erupted in Assam, earlier this month, the Assam government was reportedly tapping phones of Education and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and five other MLAs known to be close to him. It’s no secret that Sarma, who was once Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s right hand man, is now out of his good books and seen as a challenger to his position. It is alleged that the records of their conversation reach the Chief Minister’s table every evening. Gogoi has denied the tapping while Sarma dismissed the news telecast by a local television channel but the five MLAs have filed a written complaint to the Assembly speaker demanding authentication of the report.
Sources in the Punjab government claim that state police officers are tapping phones all the time. “It is not difficult for state governments to tap as they bully private telecom operators, who are only too happy to cooperate without necessary documentation,” says a senior politician. Former (Indian) Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh says that (Indian) Punjab police have acquired sophisticated listening devices in the recent past and routinely tap rival politicians.
The Daily Mail’s investigations reveal that it is not just the government agencies that are listening in. There are thousands of unregulated private detective agencies functioning in the country, particularly the metros, feeding the gluttonous hunger for information. There is a huge demand for private information to make or break marriages, to spy on business rivals and blackmail political opponents. There are around 1,000 private agencies across India that are members of Association of Private Detectives and Investigators (APDI), which itself is unregistered. In addition, there are at least 5,000 other private agencies that are working outside the APDI ambit.
Clients with money are even approaching detective agencies based in Dubai and London. It ensures a higher level of privacy for them. “Indian corporate and politicians are hiring detectives abroad to carry out what they call ‘saturation’. The agencies provide all possible information about the target including their bank account details, call records and health history for $1 million (aboutRs.54 million),” reveals a private detective who has links with such agencies abroad.
The Daily Mail’s investigations indicate that there is no estimate of the size of the snooping industry in India since it is unregulated. The total spend on domestic security that includes the home ministry, security, enforcement and investigations in India is projected to touch $10 billion (Rs.540 billion) by 2017, according to market research firm Frost & Sullivan. However, according to the chief executive of a security services company that is part of a large Indian conglomerate, the overall private security industry is growing 100 per cent every year.
These investigations further reveal that in an intricate network, the Government and private investigative agencies are feeding on each other. Doctor-turned-private detective Anurag Singh, accused in the Jaitley call data records (CDR) case, was the go-to man for the Research and Analysis Wing, Intelligence Bureau and Delhi Police for cyber probes and cases that required hacking and breaking into sophisticated firewalls and computer systems. Also the key accused in the Amar Singh 2005 wiretap case, his business did not suffer. Even after his arrest and release on bail in 2006, agencies continued to use him. If anything, his business boomed. Among his clients were big business houses, politicians and an arms dealer.
While all detective agencies openly admit to shadowing, video recording, sting operations, bugging and even corporate verifications, they deny phone tapping. However, in a city like Delhi or Mumbai, it is not difficult to find an agency that advertises “telephone tapping” services in the classified sections. They are completely on the defensive on this.
The promoter of an agency in Goregaon, Mumbai, which has been operating for 12 years with a 15-member staff, says that “telephone tapping is not possible for a private agency”. However, his company’s name and telephone number come up in a simple Google search on “phone tapping services” in the city.
Naman Jain of Sleuths India, with branches in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, admits that most detective agencies work in a grey area in the absence of privacy laws in the country. However, he insists that they cannot facilitate phone tapping. “We can shadow people, take their pictures and shoot videos of them in public spaces, work as undercover agents, provide due diligence in joint venture cases, conduct sting operations and provide bugs,” he says.
Jain says that his company arranges to attach such bugs on individuals to keep tabs on their spouses and on companies to guard against treachery. He also helps in installing aRs.40,000 software in mobile phones that enables listening-in facilities in a parallel phone. All calls and smses, incoming and outgoing, will automatically also go on the parallel phone.
According to Captain Ravee, a former Army officer who runs detective agency Fireball and an institute called Orion School of Security and Intelligence Management, such software is generally used by doubting spouses, and by parents to keep tabs on their children. Spying software can be purchased off the Internet and also in places like Delhi’s Nehru Place. ‘Spybubble’, one such software, can be bought over the Internet for $50 (aboutRs.2,700) and downloaded on the cellphone via OTA. With the help of the software, one can track calls made on the mobile, turn the mobile’s microphone into a bug, track emails and smses, and even locate a person using GPS.
A Supreme Court advocate talks about a case he got where a husband trapped his wife using such software. Vinod Malhotra, 42, and his wife Suneeta (names changed), 38, from Delhi were happily married for 15 years till he suspected her of infidelity in 2012. When Suneeta asked for a Samsung Galaxy S3 phone on their 15th marriage anniversary, he was more than happy to buy the high-end phone the very next day. But before gifting it to her, he took the phone to Nehru Place and got the spy software installed in it. The result? Every phone conversation Suneeta had and every sms she sent and received was transmitted in real time to a phone with Vinod. The next month, Vinod filed for divorce based on Suneeta’s explicit sexual conversations with his best friend.
Easy availability of software on the Net in no way infringes on the business of private detective agencies. Political parties, which cannot use state agencies for snooping, come to them during the run-up to the elections. Even government institutions have been seeking their help. The agencies may not be recognized by the Government but Captain Ravee claims to have helped State Bank of India recover bad debts to the tune ofRs.57,000 crore.
In these paranoid times, private detective agencies are not only making a killing by snooping, they are also providing counter-surveillance services. “We are increasingly finding targets using software to encrypt their conversations. While we can intercept the conversation, it comes across as garbled because we cannot decrypt it,” discloses a CBI official.
One of the biggest private detective companies in New Delhi, which has helped several white-collar criminals secure their handsets, claims that software like ‘Cellcrypt’ is easily available and encrypts the conversations and messages of the user. The only catch is that the individual at the other end should have the same software installed in the phone. “It is not such a major handicap since the top officers of a company or the core group in an operation can all install it in their phones. It is foolproof,” the detective says. Installing it in one handset costs about Rs.50, 000.
The Daily Mail’s investigations indicate that companies routinely use digital snooping to keep tabs on their employees. A leading travel portal based in Delhi’s Connaught Place fired one of its senior executives after detecting that he was sharing trade secrets with a rival portal. When he approached the court against his dismissal, a shock awaited him. The company had installed software which copied every Web page he accessed and every word he typed on his laptop. The conversation on his Gmail account was digitally reproduced in the main server and the company had no trouble in proving that he was actually mailing confidential information to the chief of a rival portal.
The snooping business thrives in the absence of laws. As former CBI Chief Joginder Singh, who is also on the APDI advisory board, says: “India has practically no law to handle snooping”.
Ironically Indian government claims of being the custodian of world’s largest democracy while this state of the affairs crystal clearly proves that even the basic democratic rights are being comprehensively denied to the citizens of this so called world’s largest democracy.