(C) Copyright 1995 Rishab Aiyer Ghosh (rishab@dxm.org)

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India worries about national security and private telephone networks

19th June 1995: According to a report from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications, India's Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has recommended the "ultimate remedy of a government takeover of [a private telecom] network in case of circumstances arising out of internal disturbances and sabotage."

The government, paranoid about the foreign companies who will own as much as 49% of a telecom operator, worries that the networks may conduct unauthorised wiretaps, presumably on behalf of evil Western intelligence agencies. Such interception could, according to the Parliamentary Committee, "pose a grave threat to the nation as well as infringe on the privacy of citizens."

Today I spoke to Telecom Secretary R K Takkar about the security criteria included in the tender document for the provision of basic telecom services (publicly available, but for $3,000). Mr Takkar said that the decision to impose the "ultimate remedy" will be made by the government, as it comes under statutory powers that are not being transferred to the independent Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. As the government has also retained the powers to licence operators, and is the contracting party, the private telecom networks explicitly agree to these terms.

In fact, the "ultimate remedy" is included in the tender document, as are other requirements, on the whole reasonable. For example, foreign personnel working on installations or maintenance would need prior security clearance. Operators would provide access to switching and transmission centres, and intercept traffic for the authorities. They could only install "approved" encryption equipment, such as that required for GSM cellular (the private use of encryption has not been mentioned).

Incidentally, Indian courts do not issue warrants or accept wiretaps as evidence, giving the police little incentive to intercept. Moreover, all wiretaps are illegal, except in exceptional circumstances. Whatever wiretaps are carried out are conducted informally by agencies such as the Intelligence Bureau - reputedly the world's oldest spook agency still active - and the victims are opposition politicians. Every decade or so a few cases come to light, are furiously debated in Parliament, and declared illegal. As they never reach the courts - which would probably concur - there are no legal precedents, only predictions.

Await a detailed story on telecom and security in the second issue of my newsletter. The first, which includes coverage of the proposed regulatory authorities for communications and broadcasting, will be on the Net later this month.

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