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Big democracy, big surveillance: India's surveillance state

In India, surveillance is on the rise by the state to tackle crime and terrorism, and private companies are eager to meet the demand. 

Worried about the secret, mass surveillance schemes being carried out by the NSA? While we should be, some of the surveillance schemes in the world's largest democracy, India, are arguably in the same league.

Surveillance is being globalised to the extent that even India, a country with huge poverty issues, is investing millions of dollars in creating an expansive surveillance regime. However, why would communications monitoring interest Indian authorities, when the majority of the population lives below the line of poverty and only 17% of the population has access to the Internet?

The official political motivation behind surveillance in India appears to be the government's determination to tackle terrorism in the country. The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks were arguably a similar landmark to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, and both governments officially announced their intention to carry out surveillance as a counter-terrorism measure. However, unlike in the west, terrorist attacks in India are much more common, and the National Security Adviser reported in 2008 that 800 terrorist cells were operational in the country. With India’s history of major terror attacks in India over the last 25 years, it's easy for one to be persuaded that terrorism is actually a major threat to national security.

India's surveillance schemes

India’s surveillance programs mostly started following the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. That was when the Ministry of Home Affairs first proposed the creation of a National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), which will give 11 intelligence and investigative agencies real-time access to 21 citizen data sources to track terror activities. These citizen data sources will be provided by various ministries and departments, otherwise called “provider agencies”, and will include bank account details, telephone records, passport data and vehicle registration details, among other types of data.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has sought over Rs. 3,400 crore (around USD 540 million!) for the implementation of NATGRID, which aims to create comprehensive patterns of intelligence by collecting sensitive information from databases of departments like the police, banks, tax and telecoms to supposedly track any terror suspect and incident.

But NATGRID is far from India's only data sharing scheme. In 2009 the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the creation and implementation of the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS), which would facilitate the sharing of databases among 14,000 police stations across all 35 states and Union Territories of India, excluding 6,000 police offices which are high in the police hierarchy. Rs. 2,000 crore (around USD 320 million) have been allocated for the CCTNS, which is being implemented by the National Crime Records Bureau under the national e-governance scheme. The CCTNS not only increases transparency by automating the function of police stations, but also provides the civil police with tools, technology and information to facilitate the investigation of crime and detection of criminals.

But apparently, sharing data and linking databases is not enough to track criminals and terrorists. As such, in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, the Indian government also implemented various interception systems. In September 2013 it was reported that the Indian government has been operating Lawful Intercept & Monitoring (LIM) systems, widely in secret. In particular, mobile operators in India have deployed their own LIM systems allowing for the so-called “lawful interception” of calls by the government. And possibly to enable this, mobile operators are required to provide subscriber verification to the Telecom Enforcement, Resource and Monitoring (TERM) cells of the Department of Telecommunications.

In the case of Internet traffic, the LIM systems are deployed at the international gateways of large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and expand to a broad search across all Internet traffic using “keywords” and “key-phrases”. In other words, security agencies using LIM systems are capable of launching a search for suspicious words, resulting in the indiscriminate monitoring of all Internet traffic, possibly without court oversight and without the knowledge of ISPs.

India has also automated and centralized the interception of communications through the Central Monitoring System (CMS). This project was initially envisioned in 2009, following the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and was approved in 2011. The CMS intercepts all telecommunications in India and centrally stores the data in national and regional databases. The CMS will be connected with the Telephone Call Interception System (TCIS) which will help monitor voice calls, SMS and MMS, fax communications on landlines, CDMA, video calls, GSM and 3G networks. Agencies which will have access to the CMS include the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

Unlike mainstream interception, where service providers are required to intercept communications and provision interception requests to law enforcement agencies, the Central Monitoring System will automate the entire process of interception. This means that the CMS authority will have centralized access to all intercepted data and that the authority can also bypass service providers in gaining such access. Once security agencies have access to this data, they are equipped with Direct Electronic Provisioning, filters and alerts on the target numbers, as well as with Call Details Records (CDR) analysis and data mining tools to identify the personal information of target numbers.

Given that roughly 73% of India's population uses mobile phones, this means that the Central Monitoring System can potentially affect about 893 million people, more than double the population of the United States! However, how is it even possible for Indian authorities to mine the data of literally millions of people? Who supplies Indian authorities with the technology to do this and what type of technology is actually being used?

India's surveillance industry

India has the world's second largest population, consisting of more than a billion people and an expanding middle class. Undoubtedly, India is a big market and many international companies aspire in investing in the country. Unfortunately though, along with everything else being imported into India, surveillance technologies are no exception.

Some of the biggest and most notorious surveillance technology companies in the world, such as ZTE, Utimaco and Verint, have offices in India. Even FinFisher command and control servers have been found in India. However, in addition to allowing foreign surveillance technology companies to create offices and to sell their products and solutions in the country, local companies selling controversial spyware appear to be on the rise too.

Kommlabs Dezign is an Indian company which loves to show off its Internet monitoring solutions at various ISS trade shows, otherwise known as “the Wiretapper's Ball”. In particular, Kommlabs Dezign sells VerbaNET, an Internet Interception Solution, as well as VerbaCENTRE, which is a Unified Monitoring Centre that can even detect cognitive and emotional stress in voice calls and flag them! In other words, Kommlabs Dezign makes a point that not only should we worry about what we text and say over our phones, but that we should also worry about what we sound like when on the phone.

Vehere is another Indian company which sells various surveillance solutions and notably sells vCRIMES, which is a Call Details Records (CDR) analysis system. VCRIMES is used to analyse and gather intelligence and to unveil hidden interconnections and relations through communications. This system also includes a tool for detecting sleeper cells through advanced statistical analysis and can analyse more than 40 billion records in less than 3 seconds.

Paladion Networks is headquartered in Bangalore, India and sells various Internet Monitoring Systems, Telecom Operator Interception Systems, SSL Interception and Decryption Systems and Cyber Cafe Monitoring Systems to law enforcement agencies in India and abroad. In fact, Paladion Networks even states in its website that its customers include India's Ministry of Information Technology and the U.S Department of Justice.

ClearTrail Technologies is yet another Indian company which not only sponsors global surveillance trade shows but also sells a wide range of monitoring solutions to law enforcement agencies in India and abroad. ComTrail is a solution for the centralised mass interception and monitoring of voice and data networks, including Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, BlackBerry, ICQ and GSM voice calls. Furthermore, ComTrail is equipped to handle millions of communications per day, correlating identities across multiple networks, and can instantly analyse data across thousands of terabytes.

ClearTrail also sells xTrail, which is a solution for the targeted interception, decoding and analysis of data traffic over IP networks and which enables law enforcement agencies to intercept and monitor targeted communications without degrading the service quality of the IP network. Interestingly, xTrail can filter based on a “pure keyword”, a URL/Domain with a keyword, a mobile number or even with just a user identity, such as an email ID, chat ID or VoIP ID.

Apparently, some the biggest challenges that law enforcement agencies face when monitoring communications include cases when targets operate from public Internet networks and/or use encryption. However, it turns out that ClearTrail's QuickTrail solution is designed to gather intelligence from public Internet networks, when a target is operating from a cyber cafe, a hotel, a university campus or a free Wi-Fi zone. This device can remotely deploy spyware into a target's computer and supports protocol decoding, including HTTP, SMTP, POP3 and HTTPS.

Additionally, QuickTrail can identify a target machine on the basis of metadata, such as an IP address, and can monitor Ethernet LANs in real time, as well as monitor Gmail, Yahoo and all other HTTPS-based communications. ClearTrail's mTrail is designed for the passive 'off-the-air' interception of GSM communications, including the interception of targeted calls from pre-defined suspect lists and the monitoring of SMS and protocol information. MTrail also identifies a target's location by using signal strength, target numbers, such as IMSI, TIMSI, IMEI or MSI SDN, which makes it possible to listen to the conversation of so-called “lawfully intercepted” calls in near real-time.

In short, it looks like India is reaching the top league when it comes to surveillance technologies, especially since many of its companies and their products appear to be just as scary as some of the most sophisticated spying gear sold by the West. India may be the world's largest (by population) democracy, but that means that it has a huge population with way too many opinions...and apparently, the private and public sectors in India appear to be joining forces to do something about it.

So do Indians have nothing to hide?

A very popular rhetoric in both India and the west is that citizens should not be concerned about surveillance because, after all, if they are not terrorists, they should have nothing to hide. However, privacy advocate Caspar Bowden has rightfully stated that this rhetoric is fundamentally flawed and that we should all indeed “have something to hide”. But is privacy just about “having something to hide”? Jacob Appelbaum has stated that this rhetoric is merely a psychological copying mechanism when dealing with security.

It's probably rather comforting and reassuring to think that we are not special or important enough for surveillance to affect us personally. But is that really up to us to decide? Unfortunately not. The very point of data mining is to match patterns, create profiles of individuals and to unveil hidden interconnections and relations. A data analyst can uncover more information about us than what we are even aware of and it is they who decide if our data is “incriminating” or not. Or even worse: in many cases it's up to data mining software to decide how “special” or “important” we are. And unfortunately, technology is not infallible.

The world's largest democracy, which is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world, is implementing many controversial surveillance schemes which lack transparency, accountability and adequate legal backing, and which are largely being carried out in secret. And to make matters worse, India lacks privacy legislation. Over a billion people in a democratic regime are exposed to inadequately regulated surveillance schemes, while a local surveillance industry is thriving without any checks or balances whatsoever. What will this mean for the global future of democracy? 

About the author

Maria Xynou works at the Tactical Tech Collective as a researcher primarily on the MyShadow and Trackography projects. Previously, she worked in India with the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) as a researcher on India's surveillance technology industry. Maria has interned with Privacy International and with the Parliament of Greece, and holds a Masters of Science degree in Security Studies from the University College London (UCL).


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