Express Exclusive: Explain off-air phone-tapping purchases, MHA tells Army
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The home ministry is learnt to have officially sought details from the Army about these interceptors. While the Army is yet to give its response, official sources pointed out the possibility of an anomaly in the information provided to the home ministry. These sources, however, confirmed that an official communication has indeed been received from North Block.
Such equipment is usually held by the Defence Intelligence Agency which comes directly under the Integrated Defence Staff. The PSU, Bharat Electronics Ltd, is said to have accounted for the DIA pieces separately.
The home ministry is the nodal office entrusted with the task of carrying out an audit of off-air interception equipment sold in India in the past decade, their deployment and ownership. In doing so, it had asked all relevant government agencies for details of the equipment they hold.
The Army had then said it did not use such equipment and did not have them in their stock. As per rules issued by the government for interception of phone conversation, only nine agencies are authorised to tap phones. The DIA is one of them but is authorised to use the equipment only in insurgency-hit areas of Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East.
When asked about the home ministry letter, the Army officially refused to comment but insiders said the information was being double-checked before a response is sent. The audit of off-air interception equipment was prompted by a controversy in 2010 after allegations emerged that the National Technical Research Organisation was tapping phone conversations of politicians. This prompted the government to crack down on the illegal use of interception equipment, with an order to draw up a list and recall such devices if necessary.
Last year, the home ministry sent out an advisory to all state and central departments to return any such equipment in their possession, pointing out that only authorised agencies can tap phone conversations. Since last May, when the advisory was sent out, many agencies, including state governments, have surrendered their equipment.
In India, the use of off-air interceptors is now restricted, mainly because such systems can easily be misused to monitor phone conversations without authorisation or the involvement of service providers.
While switchboard interception — using service providers — is legal, authorisation from union/state home secretary is required to monitor specific phones.
However, an off-air interceptor can tap all mobile phone conversations in a small area of operation without the knowledge of law enforcement agencies.
Therefore, only select agencies, including IB, R&AW and DRI, were authorised to possess these systems. (The Army is not among the organisations authorised to possess such devices.)
Agencies used these to gather intelligence, but govt has recently cracked down after a few instances of misuse came to light.
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