Hello, ‘Saheb’ is watching?


Hello, ‘Saheb’ Is Watching?. “They should not escape in closed car….We tried to lay a trap at night… That girl is so clever….Arrange something...

“They should not escape in closed car….We tried to lay a trap at night… That girl is so clever….Arrange something different…. they should not escape……Keep proper watch, should not escape.” Excerpts from a sting operation by two social network media portals Cobrapost and which showed how Gujarat’s controversial State Home Minister Amit Shah mounted surveillance on a woman architect in the State and elsewhere in 2009. Explicitly, ordered by ‘Saheb’ Narinder Modi.
Making a mountain out of a molehill? Or a molehill out of a mountain? Questions which have set political gossip mills on fire as our netas trade charges. Either which way, the expose gives us a peep into the murky world of Government muscle and extra-Constitutional arrangements wherein everything is ‘fair’, so why beat around the bush!
True, in a narrow political sense, the Congress is correct in questioning why three branches of the police - Crime branch, Anti-Terrorist squad and the Intelligence Bureau - were used for ‘illegal stalking and snooping’ in the name of ‘taking care’ of ‘Madam’ on the verbal request of the girl’s father to Chief Minister Modi and demanded inquiry by a sitting Supreme Court judge.
The BJP cries foul, trashes its rival by asserting NaMo’s Gujarat was duty- bound to protect the young woman and flays the Congress for its dirty tricks. Notwithstanding, there is something rotten in the State of Denmark!
Importantly, Snoopgate leaves many questions unanswered. Wiretapping is regulated under the 1885 Telegraph Act which does not allow tapping a phone without proper authorisation and citing specific reasons. Neither can the State ‘monitor’ a common citizen on a parent’s verbal hearsay. Two, the State needs to answer if the lady is vital to the State’s security interest, a terrorist or a security threat.
Officially, only the Union Home Secretary or his States’ counterparts can issue a phone tapping order and the police are allowed to tap phones of a person receiving threatening calls wherein the Government has to show that the information sought cannot to be obtained through any other means. Tapping is done with the Telecommunications Department’s assistance and for specific purposes like national security or for providing inputs on ongoing investigations.
Despite BJP’s assertions that all requisite permissions were taken, one portal suggests phones were being illegally intercepted by Gujarat Police outside the State. Said former Union Home Secretary GK Pillai, “Gujarat’s surveillance is totally illegal. The Centre's permission is needed if phone-tapping is outside a particular State as a State Home Secretary's permission is valid only within a State.”
Perhaps the Saffron Sangh’s bravado stems from the fact that after four years it is difficult to pin-point blame of illegal phone tapping as records are destroyed every six months. Or they have taken to a legal loophole whereby the Gujarat Government might have given the Centre a request to tap this phone on the wrong premise of a terror threat.
This apart, in fact, it is quite easy for anyone to tap a telephone as it does not require much skill. All it takes is the right equipment and bank balance to support the investment. If one pays money to a linesman sitting near the telephone exchange, a parallel connection can be arranged and conversation easily tapped. Another way to eavesdrop is to place a transmitter, one-fourth a matchbox size between the telephone exchange and phones.
For instance, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is known to possess computers that can catch key words in a conversation and then record the entire conversation. The computer is fed with the name of the wanted person and any conversation where that person's name comes up gets recorded. Recall, recently two Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists were arrested by the Delhi police on the basis of their cell phone records. The IPL cricket match-fixing and betting scandal was also exposed thanks to tapping of bookies phones.
More. With computer-based portable interception devices which not only record conversation and SMS remotely but organise it neatly in a database, tapping into cell phone has become child's play. Easy to operate with the push of a few buttons, these devices come in user-friendly packaging and can be operated on car cigarette lighters. Cellular phone company computers can record millions of movements going back to more than a year and therefore the location of a user at any given time or date can be traced to within a few hundred meters of the exact spot.
Security agencies are now understood to be actively making what are called ‘plotter's charts’ in their terminology. A person’s cell phone visiting the national Capital can be locked in their beams by sleuths and even if he does not discuss confidential issues, signals can track his movements. Though there are methods to prevent tapping, not many use these. This involves the use of debugging instrument and scramblers. While abroad people use scrambles which are superior to debugging, its price keeps many away.
In addition, sporadic tapping is necessary to track money launderers. All decisions, however, are subject to review by an oversight committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary. Remember in the Rs 1,76,000 crore in the 2G spectrum scam encompassing infamous lobbyist Nira Radia, her phone calls were lawfully intercepted by the CBDT with due authorisation from the Union Home Secretary.
Further, there is no denying that phone-tapping is undertaken the world over for reasons of national security or serious crimes. In the US the National Security Agency is authorized by a Presidential order to monitor, without search warrants, phone calls, e-mails, Internet activity, text messaging, and other communication involving any party believed by the NSA to be outside the U.S without referral to the courts.
Presently, Washington is getting sharp raps on its knuckles by 35 world leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel for snooping and tapping cell phone thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden providing classified documents. In the UK bugging is usually carried out by MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the police and most people are targeted on suspicion of terrorism or serious crime. Also, a total of 653 State bodies, including 474 Councils, have the power to intercept private communications.
Several countries have grappled unsuccessfully with the issue of phone-tapping and privacy. In some countries, independent bodies have been appointed to adjudicate disputes. In Canada, there is a privacy commissioner for the task. In New Zealand, an ombudsman plays the role while in the UK, a Data Protection Tribunal has been appointed for this purpose.
In sum, in a milieu where secrecy and paranoia is the hallmark of governance, both at the Central and State level either which way the aam aadmi right to know the truth. An effort made to reveal truth is never wrong. No longer should Shah and NaMo hide behind the veil of secrecy. Time for them to change their mindset and part with information. Democracy comes first. Can Saheb or the Shehzada argue with this?

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