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Executive of telecom giant that aided NSA spying is on India's cyber security panel

An HT investigation reveals the major role representatives of US telecom firm AT&T are playing in drawing up a strategy for cyber security and internet governance in India.

india Updated: Apr 08, 2014 21:16 IST
Saikat Datta
Saikat Datta
Hindustan Times

Sensitive government committees aimed at boosting India's cyber security and formulating its internet policy have featured intensive participation by representatives of US telecom giant AT&T, a company with a record of voluntary participation in online spying by the US, and a strong interest in ensuring rules of the internet road favour large corporations.

Virat Bhatia, president (external affairs) of AT&T for South Asia, has for 18 months been a member of a "permanent joint working group" set up by National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon in 2012 under the aegis of the secretive National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), an investigation by HT reveals.

Following revelations by Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, about the scope of the US' internet surveillance activities, cyber security issues and future management of the internet's basic infrastructure have been the subject of renewed debate.

India is a key player in these discussions, and there is concern both in government and civil society about the role played by AT&T, given its history of involvement in monitoring email, internet-based phone calls and other online traffic.

AT&T's cooperation with the NSA ran so deep that it was challenged in the US courts by high-profile internet freedom advocacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Kurt Opsahl, an attorney for EFF told HT: "It is disappointing that AT&T collaborated with the NSA for years to expose its customers' data for government surveillance without proper legal process. We sued AT&T over this illegal practice, and were making progress until Congress stepped in and provided retroactive immunity".

Bhatia's responsibilities include "corporate development…through advocacy and external/public affairs work."

Documents and emails accessed by HT show Bhatia was part of a sub-group set up to prepare a report on India's cyber security. This was followed up by setting up of a permanent Joint Committee on International Cooperation and Advocacy (JCICA).

The JCICA's role, according to official documents, is to promote "India's national interests at various international forums on cyber security issues."

The NSCS draws on secret and open source intelligence to prepare strategy papers for the highest levels of government, and is exempt from disclosing information under RTI laws.

Bhatia insists there is nothing untoward about his role, saying he is simply "a representative of FICCI" (the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry."

FICCI's secretary general, Dr. A. Didar Singh told HT: "I am a co-chair of the committee along with the Deputy NSA and the proceedings of the meetings are confidential." Bhatia also defended his presence on the committees by pointing out that his "company AT&T has a license from the government to do business here."

Neither NSA Menon, nor Deputy NSA Nehchal Sandhu responded to questionnaires from HT.

AT&T insists its role is above-board. Wayne Watts, senior executive vice president said, "When it comes to governmental surveillance and requests for customer information, all companies are compelled to comply with the laws of the country in which they operate." See PDF

In a separate but related process, Bhatia along with others connected to AT&T, continues to play a leading role in advising the Indian government on internet governance in international forums.

The outcome of these debates will have major implications for the technical health of the internet, privacy, and freedom of speech in India and abroad.

Bhatia has been made part of the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) under the ministry of communications and information technology (MoCIT). The India MAG was first created by Bhatia for a FICCI conference in 2012. It was subsequently taken over by the government and Bhatia and his AT&T colleague, Naveen Tandon, were retained as members giving AT&T two of the 12 private sector seats. See PDF

"Since 2012, at several international conferences our diplomats sent reports about Bhatia's role to undermine our efforts," a senior foreign ministry official told HT. This was confirmed by a recently retired diplomat who represented India at the UN. "We sent reports back questioning the role they were playing in the internet governance space," the senior diplomat told HT.

Deepening the controversy, Bhatia also appears to be particularly close to one of the civil society bodies on the MAG. Media for Change is a trust operated by Subi Chaturvedi, an assistant professor at Delhi-based Lady Shri Ram College for women. She is its sole honorary trustee, Chaturvedi told HT in an interview.

Emails accessed by HT suggest that Bhatia championed Chaturvedi's rise in Indian internet governance circles. She was also paid upwards of Rs 2.3 lakh for her role at a FICCI-led conference on internet governance. Subsequently, she also received part-funding from FICCI to attend an international conference. This raises a clear conflict of interest since she was on board as a civil society representative, but accepted payments from industry and corporate bodies.

Chaturvedi has also publicly acknowledged a former AT&T official, Marylin Cade as a "coach and mentor."

Within six months of her October 2012 appointment to the India MAG, she was made part of an international body, the Internet Governance Forum-MAG, which, under a UN aegis, serves as a platform for internet governance issues globally. Chaturvedi denies Bhatia played any special role in her emergence in the debate, saying she has a long record in internet governance matters.

Chaturvedi's position on global civil society platforms has also come in for criticism from other established civil society groups in India. A joint letter was issued by 10 organisations in February this year questioning her role. See PDF

"We would like to express our strong reservations about the appointment of Ms. Subi Chaturvedi from India, as the civil society co- chair for the NetMundial meeting in Brazil...These reservations are based on Ms. Chaturvedi's lack of experience, expertise and standing in civil society networks…," they wrote in February.

Their primary concerns emerge from her lack of any published work prior to 2012 and linkages to private corporations.

Some of Chaturvedi's claims that enabled her to be part of the IGF-MAG have proved controversial. For instance, she states that she is pursuing a PhD from IIT-Delhi. This came under a cloud when her guide accused her of plagiarism and she was issued a warning letter by the dean (academics), professor Anurag Sharma. See PDF | See PDF

Chaturvedi also claimed to have led a campaign for safe internet practices. The campaign, however, was led by the Data Security Council of India (DSCI), a private sector conglomerate, which contracted her for nearly Rs 8.5 lakh to promote the campaign on social media.

Chaturvedi dismissed the issues raised in the letter as "professional jealousy", saying she had a solid history of work in the internet governance space. Chaturvedi called the plagiarism charge by her guide a "misunderstanding." IIT-Delhi has retained the "unsatisfactory" grading awarded to her.