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l September '04 l

The Kashmir Bachao Andolan Publication

l Vol 4, No 5 l

E D I T O R ' S   C H O I C E

Of Technology and Terrorism
Siddharth Srivastava

It is a relentless and often losing war that Indian security agencies wage against the rapid advance in technology that allow people and by extension terrorists and militant ideologues to communicate, whether over the Internet or the cellular phone. 

The Intelligence Bureau (IB) which is responsible for internal security is the nodal security organization in India that has been entrusted with the tough task of monitoring communication that may be inimical to national interests as well as cracking any potential terror attacks.  The equivalent of the IB in the US is the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI. The IB has done a good job of tracking e-mails, taking a cue from monitoring software such as the infamous Carnivore that the FBI is known to use. In the latest instance, however, it seems that the advancements in cellular technology have far outstripped the progress that the IB is making in tracking exchanges on mobile phones.

The IB has taken a serious view of the fact that cellular service providers’ in India have yet to comply with the requirement of installing monitoring equipment that will allow sleuths to access data whenever they wish to. License conditions make it mandatory for cellular operators to install a security monitoring system before launching these services. In countries like the US, the monitoring systems are so strong that all overseas calls are recorded and stored, while all domestic calls are monitored.

The IB has written a letter to the national security advisor J N Dixit and the secretary, department of telecommunications (DoT), saying that it is necessary that telecom service providers be permitted to introduce value added services only after putting monitoring mechanisms in place. The services in question include GPRS, EDGE and PSDN that are high-speed data transmission devices, which allow fast Internet access, and sending and receiving mails and photographs while POC is a close user group service. All cellular operators, including Airtel, Hutch, Idea and Reliance provide these services.

The IB has said that immediate action should be taken against operators who do not comply with this condition. Criticizing the DoT’s soft approach on the issue, the IB has said, “Non-implementation of license conditions conveys a soft approach, due to which, even after being approached to provide monitoring mechanisms their response is lackadaisical, indicative of a weak licensing regime.” It has expressed concern that the DoT has not initiated any action against the operators providing GPRS services without any monitoring facility in place. It has asked the DoT to ensure that service providers install proper monitoring equipment in a time-bound manner.

The IB has reason to be miffed as it has achieved some success in providing classified information by cracking e-mails of several known terrorists and mafia dons, in the past.

The IB constantly updates a list of keywords that are to be used to intercept mails emanating from Internet protocol addresses in India.  The move came after investigations revealed that terrorists, who mounted a bold attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, were in constant touch with their counterparts in Pakistan as well as within India through email. 

The IB has been constantly preparing dossiers to prove that that terrorists connected to such leading terror outfits as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda and the Jaish-e-Mohammed are tech-savvy often using coded words and pictures to communicate over the Internet.  Obvious giveaways such as Kashmir, Lashkar, Pakistan, Musharraf , an email ID such as are under the surveillance. Others words such as attack, kill, rocket as well as mails with repeated reference to Arab names should also be under surveillance. The software being used is similar to the Carnivore surveillance technology that the FBI went public about a few years back, which led to a public outcry against invasion of privacy, with most protests dying down after the September 11 attacks.  Surveillance software is usually installed inside servers of the Internet Service Providers, several of whom such as Satyam, Mantra and VSNL operate in India.

According to senior officials, tracking e-mails of arrested terrorists has become a foolproof method of gaining hard evidence. ``There can be no fooling around with e-mail IDs and passwords," says an official of the IB, "Once a terrorist is caught his e-mail IDs can be crosschecked immediately. So, he better tell the truth. Phone records or other statements require a time lag before they can be confirmed,’’ he adds.

Indeed, the fact that the modern generation terrorist is generally educated and tech-savvy, has helped in investigations. Whether it is Aftab Ansari (accused in an attack on the American Center library in Kolkata) or Omar Sheikh (accused in the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl) or Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Shakeel (accused of several crimes including bomb blasts and terror attacks in India), the kind of information that has been generated now would not have been possible without accessing their e-mails.

``Most of the current lot of criminals have become extremely chary of using their phones given the past record of tapping by intelligence agencies. However, they felt free exchanging critical information on the Internet,’’ says the official.

It is through a series of e-mail exchanges between Ansari and Sheikh that the involvement of the two in the WTC attack had been confirmed. The IB used e-mail interception technology to track Ansari by tracing his e-mails, first to servers in Dubai and then to Islamabad. The local Internet service provider was roped in to determine the exact location from which Ansari had sent an e-mail that turned out to be Islamabad.  Even in the case of Sheikh, the police in Karachi, helped by a cyber-tracking team from the FBI, traced the three men who had sent the e-mails about Pearl's abduction to the media. The arrested men lead them on to Sheikh. The authorities then picked up Sheikh's in-laws from Lahore, exerting pressure on him to surrender. Intelligence agencies have cracked into e-mail IDs of Dawood Ibrahim ( and Chhota Shakeel to confirm their presence in Pakistan.

Thus, the IB is now taking a serious view of cellular service providers launching new services without installing any monitoring system. According to an official anti-national elements are using these services extensively ``being conscious of the fact that they are not being monitored.’’ Various Indian security agencies have been holding several meetings in the recent past to surmount the issue of tracing text SMS, short message service, one of the preferred means of communication by terrorists.  As things stand cellular signals in several locations, including Delhi, are blocked during important occasions such as Independence or Republic Day, when possibility of disruption is the maximum. Long distance landline calls and cellular services are intermittently blocked in the state of Jammu & Kashmir.

Indeed, it is a tough task to balance individual privacy and freedom with implications of national security.

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