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Phone-Tapping Scandal:DEMOCRACY OR POLICE STATE?, by Poonam I Kaushish,7 January 2006 Print E-mail


NEW DELHI, 7 January 2006

Phone-Tapping Scandal


By Poonam I Kaushish

As North India shivers in the blistering cold wave, the Adam’s and Eves in the political Garden of Eden continue to generate heat. Wherein the country is slowly but surely being pushed towards becoming an ‘eves’dropping paradise!          

Poor Amar Singh, the Badshah of ‘Reliable’ infotainment is today deeply involved in a phone-tapping controversy. He has accused the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi of getting his phone tapped. He has produced Home Ministry letters to prove his charge. Interestingly, the tapping was allegedly done by the owner of a private detective agency alongwith a Reliance man, both of whom have been arrested.  

The phone-tapping records are said to pertain to the Samajwadi leader’s gup-shup with some film stars.  While not denying his guftagu, Amar Singh and his party Chief Mulayam Singh Yadav have made the tapping into a major political issue. Both have demanded a full fledged enquiry by a special task force instead of the CBI, which they have dubbed as the Congress Bureau of Investigation.

The Congress has rubbished the charges by the SP duo and got only described them as ‘Operation Majnu’ but pointedly asked: Why has an FIR not been filed? Moreover, the tapping had been done by a private party against whom a proper inquiry had already been instituted and two persons had been arrested. But the issue refuses to die down. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalitha, too has joined issue with the SP General Secretary and alleged that she, too, was the victim of phone-tapping. The Left parties have also chipped in and demanded a thorough enquiry.

True, in a narrow political sense, the phone-tapping incident is yet another indicator of how low and dirty our polity plays. There are no rules of the game. Morality and ethics no longer matter. Everything is ‘fair’ in a political war. Having crossed the limits of all maryada, why beat about the bush! Haramzadigi, if I say so, is the new name of the game. But the issue goes far beyond this. It raises serious and pertinent questions about the violation of an individual’s basic right to privacy and his fundamental right to freedom of speech, enshrined in our Constitution. Raising a moot point: Are we slowly degenerating from a democracy into a police state?

There is no denying that phone-tapping is undertaken the world over for reasons of national security or serious crimes. Wiretapping is regulated under the Telegraph Act of 1885.  Officially, only the Union Home Secretary, or his counterparts in the states can issue an order for telephone tapping, and the police are allowed to tap telephones of a person receiving threatening calls. The government is also required to show that the information sought cannot to be obtained through any other means. Tapping has to be done with the assistance of the telecommunications department.

For instance, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is known to possess computers that can catch a key word 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 is used gets recorded. Recently, two Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists were gunned down by the Delhi police on the basis of their cellphone records. The cricket scandal of match fixing was also exposed thanks to the tapping of the phones of bookies and the former South African captain, Hansie Cronje in 2000.

However, what is distressing is that the powers-that-be are abusing their brute authority to get the phones of their political opponents tapped. In fact, there have been several phone tapping scandals in recent years leading to a Supreme Court direction in 1996. The Court ruled that wiretaps are a "serious invasion of an individual's privacy”. The Court recognized the fact that the right to privacy is an integral part of the fundamental right to life enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution. The Court even laid down guidelines for wiretapping by the government.

Sadly, there is no definite indication that privacy is being respected as per the Supreme Court's guidelines. As India's cream de la cream especially the political class and  the business community shift to cellular phones as the preferred mode of communication, more and more instances are coming to light of not just security agencies but even cellular company employees selling telephone records of rival companies for a consideration or just listening in on conversations. Recall, how phone tapping was taken recourse to in an attempt to destabilize the BJP-BSP coalition Government in UP in 2001. Allegedly a political fixer tapped the phones of the BSP rebels to ensure that they did not desert the Party.

Not many are aware that it is quite easy for anyone to tap the telephone as it does not require much skill. All it takes is the right equipment and the bank account to support the investment. According to detectives, if one pays a little money to the linesman, who is sitting near the telephone exchange, a parallel connection can be arranged and the conversation easily tapped. Another way to eavesdrop upon a telephone conversation is to place a transmitter, one-fourth the size of a matchbox, between the telephone exchange and the phones.

Not only that. With computer-based portable interception devices that not only record conversation and SMS remotely but organise it neatly in a database for future reference, tapping into cellphone is becoming 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. The cellphone of a person visiting the national capital can be locked in their beams by sleuths and even if he does not discuss confidential issues, the signals can track his movements. Though there are methods to prevent tapping, not many make use of them. This involves the use of debugging instrument and scramblers. While abroad people use scrambles which are superior to debugging, but its price keeps people away.

Despite assertions by successive Governments regarding introduction of a new age legislation and the setting up of an organisation to oversee telecom companies, we do not appear to have travelled very far towards ensuring privacy and a fair deal for telecom

subscribers. But as the Amar Singh issue has highlighted, the time has come for a debate on the invasion of privacy. It is not merely an issue of washing of dirty political linen to score petty points. But as more and more people turn to higher technology-based phones of all varieties due to falling rates, privacy and grievance redress will become more and more contentious as it involves the basic issue of human rights. Questions rarely addressed by political parties.

Fortunately, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has done well to have honestly acknowledged that “phone-tapping is a very serious matter”. Asked to comment on the SP’s charge, he also asserted: “Phone-tapping should not be there”.  There are no two views on it”. Clearly, there is an urgent need to shore up public confidence by prescribing  a fresh set of guidelines barring the Government from tapping phones of its rivals. Or else it could turn into a scandalous “political tool and trade practice’. The guidelines must also ensure that owners and employees of cellular companies are denied the pleasure of delving in their backyards for details of persons called by a particular subscriber. If we do not cry a halt now, the country may well end up as a police state.  ----INFA

(Copyright India News and Feature Alliance)


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