Petrified opposition leaders, bureaucrats, a few ruling party MLAs or even ministers in Haryana, worried over possible tapping of their cell phones, can heave a sigh of relief now.
Terming "off-air" interceptions (a computer-based contraption that can intercept and record call content of a GSM network) as completely illegal, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) has issued a directive to state governments across the country to surrender all passive off-air GSM interception devices at their disposal to ward off the peril of unauthorised mobile phone tapping.
Though the Haryana government has issued necessary instructions in this regard to the state CID (which has the custody of a passive off-air apparatus), neighbouring Punjab has denied having any such contraption in their possession.
"This is just hearsay. In fact, Punjab police do not have any off-air interception apparatus in their possession. We have also communicated this to the MHA,'' said a senior Punjab official who did not want to be named.
Haryana director general of police Ranjeev Singh Dalal said that they were in correspondence with the MHA to seek clarification on the agency designated to take back the off-air contraption. "Initially we were told to get in touch with a Union Telecom Ministry agency for surrendering but they refused to accept the device,'' Dalal said.
State police officials, however, feel that they still need this contraption to fight crime and tackle anti-national elements.
The MHA, which first asked the state officials to surrender the contraptions during a meeting with the chief secretaries and DGP of the state on May 31, has also come out with a model list of standard operating procedures (SOP) for lawful telephone interception. The ministry has also asked the states to frame their SOPs as per their requirements but broadly based on the model SOPs. The MHA had also recommended standard operating procedures for mobile service providers.
"The Intelligence Bureau (IB) is willing to share information on custom clearance granted for import of passive off-air GSM interception devices with state governments. This will help to track down any such contraption bought by corporates or other agency,'' said an IB official on the condition of anonymity.
The MHA has also asked the states to have a meeting of a review committee comprising the chief secretary, legal remembrancer and secretary to the state government (other than Home Secretary) every two months under rule 419-A of the Indian Telegraph Rules. The committee within a period of 60 days from the issue of the directions to intercept will suo motu make enquiries and investigations and record its findings whether directions issued for interception were in accordance with section 5 (2) of the Act. If the committee finds the directions to be not in accordance with the provisions, it may set aside the directions and order for destruction of copies of the intercepted message or class of messages.
Three years ago, the Haryana government bought a passive "off-air" telephone interception solution and a state-of-the-art telephone interception and monitoring system. The two contraptions cost the state government about Rs 7.8 crore and were imported through two Government of India enterprises - Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Ltd and Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd.
While the Lawful Telephone Interception and Monitoring System (LIMS) is a static apparatus, the Passive "Off-Air" Telephone Interception Solution (POA) is a mobile unit. POA remains in the custody of the state CID chief all the time.
The LIMS monitoring stations have been set up at police headquarters t Panchkula, the police range headquarters at Ambala, Rohtak, Hisar, Rewari and Gurgaon Commissionerate. The argument for buying such devices was to track down and combat "modern day, smart criminals".
Government can intercept telephonic communications under section 5 (2) of the Indian Telegraph Act. However, this has to be done with the prior permission of the home secretary.