Snooping around

It isn't just the State recording conversations through phone tapping, like in the Radia case. There are a host of gadgets and software which make it possible for people to spy on business rivals, spouses, foes and friends. Sonal Kalra and Neha Sharma report.
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Updated on Dec 19, 2010 01:20 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | BySonal Kalra and Neha Sharma

Stock broker Amit Srivastav, 34, couldn't get over a nagging doubt: something wasn't quite right in the dealings of his business partner. On a friend's advice, Srivastav bought a 'spy software' online, which allowed him to tap his mobile phone and hack into his email account. A week later, Srivastav's worst fears were confirmed: His partner was a mole for a business rival.

If you thought snooping was limited to State agencies intercepting calls of big players like lobbyist Niira Radia, think again. Spying is happening like never before, thanks to applications available off the Internet.

Globally, to protect privacy, tapping a mobile/landline phone is controlled by the state. In India, too, under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, law enforcement agencies can tap phones in accordance with procedures established by law. While in the US and UK, only courts can allow tapping, in India, a clearance has to be obtained from the home ministry.

Yet, detective agencies offer exhaustive packages for phone tapping. And it doesn't just stop at phones — from video surveillance to bugging and hacking, there are ways an individual can spy on others through easily available snooping tools for anything between R 15,000 to R 5 lakh per month. Here's a peek into the intriguing but easy-to-do world of snooping gadgets.

Phone tapping

Your mobile phone can help your foes keep track of you

Thousands of phones are tapped at any given point in India through service providers, by intercepting signals received by towers. This could be at the Integrated Services Digital network level or through a leased line (see box). Global System for Mobile technology enables tapping without knowledge of service providers. Its cost can run into crores.

Spyware people use

While phone surveillance methods are meant for use only by government, there are numerous spyware online that give people access to conversations, text messages, phone data and call logs. Using Spyware, detectives help clients keep tabs on spouses, colleagues and even teenaged children.

The catch: Spyware needs to be loaded on to the cellphone of the person being snooped on. It takes 2-3 minutes."Installing isn't easy. Sometimes women let us in to do it when the husband is in the shower," says a detective. Other software can get installed through Bluetooth, but you need to download the software on your phone, then call the target cellphone and stay connected for 90 seconds for the phones to 'pair up.'

Spyware capabilities

With low-end spyware, you could get an SMS displaying the calling number, every time there is an incoming call. With high-end options, conversations can be recorded. "A spyware turns your phone into the clone of the target phone. You can text pretending to be the person you are snooping on. A woman used it to send a nasty message to her hubby's secretary, with whom he was rumoured to be having an affair," says professional hacker Namit Jain.*

What it can't catch: Real time applications like Blackberry messenger and gchat on smartphones remain outside the purview of hacking.

Is your phone being tapped?

Spyware works silently. However, here are some signs that suggest tapping:

If the battery drains out faster

If even an idle mobile feels warm: it may have a spyware active

If your phone lights up unexpectedly, even when it is not in use

Unexplained beeps or clicks during a call

What the law says

Unauthorised tapping is an offence under the IT Act, 2000, punishable with imprisonment up to three years with a fine of R 5 lakh, says Duggal. "We don't yet have a law specific to unauthorised phone tapping," he adds.


A laptop or a cellphone can turn into a bugging device

Bugging as a technique for snooping is not exactly new. For decades, bugs planted in a premises to listen to conversations have been used, particularly for corporate or diplomatic espionage. However, what's new is technology that allows gadgets such as a laptop lying idle to be activated into a bugging device. Then there are transmitters that come with in-built receivers. "If the client is at a close distance and wants to listen to the conversation while it is happening, the receiver catches signals being emitted by the transmitter in real time and enables that," says detective Rajesh Jain.

A bug in the living room

Earlier, businessmen generally approached detectives to bug offices of rivals or suspect employees. Nowadays agencies also get clients who want to bug their own home in a bid to know what their partners are up to. Naveen Malhotra*, 34, a software engineer, admits to planting a recording device in his living room. "I didn't really suspect my wife of infidelity but I knew that when I was at work, my mother in law would call her up and incite wife with all kinds of non-sense that was causing problems in my married life. My wife always denied talking to her mother. The bug helped me nail the lie."

What the law says

Indian laws are completely silent on bugging as an independent issue. "The law treats it as illegal interception, which is an offence under IT Act attracting a maximum imprisonment of three years," says cyber lawyer Pawan Duggal.

The truth about video surveillance

Video cameras can bring your indiscretions to light

Video surveillance, apart from being used by investigative agencies to monitor suspects, is used by media to conduct sting operations and detectives to spy for their clients. "Clients want clear footage on cheating spouses where the act is taking place in darkness," says Rajesh Jain, a Delhi-based detective.

Small video cams can be placed anywhere, from ties and pens to dashboards and bikes. When following a suspect, detectives switch to handycams with zooms. "A married woman recently went to a guesthouse with her boyfriend. Our bikers followed them with cameras on their bikes and intimated her husband," says Sanjay Singh of Indian Detective Agency which gets 8-10 clients a month requesting for video recordings of spouses.

What the law says

Unauthorised video surveillance is a crime, amounting to invasion of privacy inviting imprisonment up to three years. "As a crime it is more focused on images of sexual acts, but the law is silent on videographing conversation," says cyber law expert Pawan Duggal.

F-book trail

The social network is rife with snooping opportunities

With most people hooked to social networking sites, detectives often take the Facebook trail to see who their friends are, the pictures they upload and whom they chat with. This comes in particularly handy for pre-marital surveillance.

What the law says

It is not a crime. "Once a piece of information is in the public domain, trailing it is not a crime," opines Duggal. There is no law in India to address social networking snooping.

Email hacking

You've got mail and spyware that will infiltrate your privacy

"It is becoming easier to hack into email accounts thanks to software available online," says Delhi-based cyber expert Himanshu Tiwari, who works with law enforcement agencies. Adds Sanjeev Deswal of the Aider Detective Agency: "Recently a man approached me saying his wife was spending a lot of time online post-midnight, claiming that she was working. When we retrieved deleted files on the hard disk, we discovered she was surfing porn sites."

What the law says

A crime under IT Act with imprisonment of upto three years and a R 5 lakh fine. Victims can claim compensation of up to R 5 crore from the hacker.

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