There are an unknown number of machines which are floating around that can infringe upon your right to privacy by allowing third parties to snoop into private conversations.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is having a tough time tracking down unaccounted-for off-the-air monitoring (OAM) equipment, which is used to measure the strength of mobile signals but can also be used for eavesdropping. No records of these buyers are available.
“We are facing a difficult task of retrieving an unknown number of OAM equipment that was imported on a large-scale by several telecom companies, law enforcement agencies and central security agencies during 2008-2010. As they fell under the open general license (OGL) category, there are no records available of the buyers,” a senior DoT official said.
The reason why the machines made their way into the country is because they were removed from the OGL list as recently as three years ago, making it necessary since 2010 to seek the Centre’s permission to import them under the restricted licence list.
The Union home ministry has issued orders at least twice to all potential users to return them. In response, it has received information of only 24 such machines so far.
The DoT is expected to ask telecom companies to explain in writing how many such machines — which cannot be monitored, can be carried in a small car and do not need any intervention from the GSM telecom provider to listen to GSM conversations in about a one-kilometre radius — they are using and for what purpose.
After doing much homework, the DoT and the Union home ministry, with the help of the finance ministry, have managed to identify only about 45 such OAM machines of which they failed to get the addresses of importers of 24 machines. But this could be only a fraction of the actual import as we don’t know who all got it and under what category, an official conceded.
Telecom expert, Mahesh Uppal said, “Such equipment has implications for individual privacy, business and official secrecy.
Telecom Operators have an obligation to ensure privacy of conversation and need to abide by the law. There are legitimate concerns about who should have access to these kinds of equipment.”
Worried at the potential dangers and pitfalls of eavesdropping, the government has turned down the requests of army and National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) to acquire about a hundred OAM equipment.
A tough decision, as the request had come with the specific purpose of using OAM equipment for vulnerable border areas, the Union home ministry and DoT thought it appropriate to “look into the legality of the issue” before giving entertaining it.
Officials involved in the decision conceded that the issue was too hot to be considered given the background of General VK Singh controversy of using Technical Services Division (TSD) for allegedly intercept conversations with the help of OAM equipment.
There are allegations that the TSD, a unit set up under the Military Intelligence (MI) was illegally used to overhear high-profile officials and politicians during Singh’s tenure.