NATGRID, or National Intelligence Grid is back in the news after a hiatus. It hit the headlines in late 2009, as the brainchild of Union home minister P Chidambaram in the fight against terrorism.
Raghu Raman, former head of the Mahindra Special Services Group, was appointed to head the new organisation. Before this appointment, Chidambaram was said to have discussed, with various agencies, ‘in detail implementation of this ambitious project without infringing upon the privacy of individuals whose details - banking, insurance, immigration, income tax, telephone and internet usage, will be on the NATGRID’.
NATGRID was mandated to link 21 different databases for the access of 11 security agencies, including the newly established National Investigation Agency.
According to media reports, the telecom and internet service providers will be mandated by regulations to compulsorily link up their databases with NATGRID. The databases so far identified for being linked in the grid include those of rail and air travel, phone calls, bank accounts, credit card transactions, passport and visa records, PAN cards, voter ID card details, ration card details, land and property records, automobile ownership and driving licences, degrees from schools and colleges, sale of certain chemicals, and police station and jail records.
The NATGRID can give the 11 authorised security and investigation agencies access to this data base. Law enforcement and security agencies already have access to most of these records even now, but they work individually, and the information is not available all together. NATGRID changes the paradigm: once an investigation or security agency has the name of an individual, all data pertaining to this individual available with the different agencies like airlines, railways, banks, income tax, insurance etc, become available in one scoop! That appears to be the advantage of the system.
The government had initially raised concerns about the impact of the new agency on privacy of the individual, but have now, after a presentation by the home ministry, cleared the first two phases of the NATGRID, and given the ‘in-principle’ approval for the next two phases.
After completion of the first two phases, when information already available in accordance with current laws would be available at one place for use by the 11 agencies approved for this purpose, the home ministry will have to take clearance of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) once again for going ahead with the next two phases (which itself may require amendments to existing legal provisions).
How will the new agency help in checking terrorist attacks? Apart from being a huge database, storing sensitive information that can be useful to security and investigation agencies, it is doubtful whether the NATGRID could have prevented a 26/11 type of terrorist attack.
Headley, with his American passport and Caucasian looks, would only have figured in the immigration records, and which would not raise any hackles. The only suspicious activity that took place in Headley’s itinerary was that each time he visited India; his return trip was to Pakistan. This was because he had to brief the ISI and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) of his work in Mumbai after each visit.
But an American citizen going to Pakistan may not have raised any alert among our immigration officers. His mobile connections were not in his name. His friends and landlord had no reason to suspect him. In spite of his two wives complaining to the FBI in the US and the CIA in Islamabad about Headley’s links to the LeT, we are told the Americans did not take any action against Headley, ostensibly because of the hundreds of such inputs landing on their table almost daily. It was only after the British MI6 alerted them about Headley getting in touch with two al-Qaeda suspects in that country did the CIA get going on the case and the FBI finally picked him up.
Coming back to the usefulness of the NATGRID in these circumstances, once our agencies are alerted about Headley (including his various aliases), NATGRID can at one stroke give the NIA or any anti-terrorism squad all the information available with it in the NATGRID data base, including phone and immigration records. This would at that stage, greatly facilitate the investigation process.
NATGRID will also be useful to keep surveillance on all known anti-national characters, like members of SIMI and the Indian Mujahideen, if they figure in any of its records, with regard to their movements within the country, and funds that they may be getting from sources abroad, investments made by them in stocks and real estate, large scale purchase of chemicals used for manufacturing improvised explosive devices etc. Of course, any real impact of the NATGRID is linked to the underlying database being up to date.
The writer retired as the first director general of the National