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A liberal democracy has the imperative of balancing state and public security with respect for individual privacy. The use of signals interception through passive surveillance technology is an uncontested violation of the notion and reality of privacy, unless carried out by the government, according to law and as restricted by the courts. Two years ago, concerns were raised about "snooping", with reports about the National Technical Research Organisation misusing interception equipment mounted on SUVs in the capital's diplomatic enclave. In March this year, this paper reported that the government was looking into "specific information" about the deployment of two such sets of passive cellphone interception equipment in Delhi by a section of the army brass. A year ago, the government swung into action on the unrestricted use of off-air technology to monitor or intercept phone calls. Now, state governments, following the Union home ministry's directive last year, have begun to surrender their passive surveillance equipment to the Centre, while the department of telecommunications (DoT) is ready to take legal action against those on its first list of private users of such equipment.
That the crackdown is yielding results is good news. However, the inventory drawn up by the customs department of all such technology imported over a decade threw up the daunting figure of 73,000 sets. The dozen pieces surrendered by state governments, therefore, constitute only a tiny fraction of that figure. That the technology is dual-use (doubling up as a switchboard) does allow room for benign usage. Yet, PSUs, state governments and private users have no business possessing such technology in the first place. It is also illegal for manufacturers to sell it to private or unlicensed users. Under the circumstances, the Centre's mop-up drive must continue till all the equipment is confiscated.
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