India's Version of Prism Even Worse

Sudha Nagaraj Bharadwaj, Journalist | 9/12/2013 | 23 comments

Sudha Nagaraj Bharadwaj
For the past six months, a widely reported, "surreptitious surveillance" pilot project has been underway in India, and CIOs who do business there need to know about it.

Called the Indian Central Monitoring System (CMS), it is touted as India's very own Prism -- with the capability to monitor voice calls, SMS and MMS, GPRS, faxes, CDMA, GSM and 3G networks, video calls, and Internet activity. Being deployed at an estimated cost of US $64 million, the system can bypass every telecom service provider in the country and enables government agencies to lawfully intercept all data, access call data records, as well as track the geographical location of individuals in real-time.

Expected to be formally commissioned in October, the CMS program is also equipped to track all social media communication as well as search engine queries. The metadata would be subjected to pattern recognition and other automated tests to detect emotional markers like dissent, hate, and intent.

Designed by the Telecom Enforcement, Resource, and Monitoring Cells and implemented by the Centre for the Development of Telematics (C-DOT), the CMS is manned by the Intelligence Bureau, while government agencies like the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), the Narcotics Control Bureau, and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) can all access it.

The government's plans to keep an eye on communications seemed innocuous enough as reflected in a statement made in the Upper House of Parliament way back in 2009, but the CMS is now seen by many as a gross violation of privacy and security. It is being viewed with great suspicion in the backdrop of other government plans for Internet censorship, monitoring programs, collection of biometric data, proposals to create DNA profiles of offenders, government purchase of software to crack secure mobile phones and password-protected computers, and the creation of the National Intelligence Grid. Online petitions have sprung up to protest against the flood of surveillance tools coming into the open.

The largest uproar arises from the fact that the CMS does not need a court order to launch surveillance. There has been no attempt to seek the approval of the Parliament for the clandestine mass electronic surveillance system. The government has tried to appease critics citing an electronic audit trail for each phone number put under surveillance, but the fact that this audit trail will only be available to the Ministry of Home Affairs under which all the surveillance takes place has provided little comfort.

When union minister of state for communications and IT Milind Deora claimed at a Google Hangout session recently that the CMS would protect citizens from unlawful interception of communication by other agencies, it was not clear if he was referring to the domestic case of telephone tapping involving Nira Radia -- a corporate communication consultant to the Tata Group -- or to America's Prism program, which targeted India as well. In any case, the popular perception is that the CMS is more draconian than Prism.

For enterprises and CIOs, the most worrying aspect of a blanket surveillance program such as the CMS is the threat to online transactions, intellectual property, business secrets, and confidentiality of pre-grant patents and data. In the absence of targeted surveillance, vulnerabilities may be introduced into the system to enable blanket screening of the Internet. This will, in turn, increase the chances of hacking attacks -- with all the data being collected in one single repository of the CMS, the server is exposed to threats from competitors and cyber criminals alike.

Whether you are a citizen concerned with individual liberty or an enterprise concerned about data security, the CMS has to be on your radar as well as the programs slowly being made public in countries throughout the world. What do you think? Would the CMS deter your desire to do business in India? Is worldwide government-sanctioned surveillance a threat? Comment below.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
Page 1 / 3   >   >>
tekedge   India's Version of Prism Even Worse   9/30/2013 10:23:03 PM
India's Version of Prism even worse
We must be glad at least we are armed with the knowledge of such surveillance existing. Otherwise it is not above governments to pull a fast one! 
Susan Nunziata   India's Version of Prism Even Worse   9/19/2013 10:06:24 PM
Re: World's version of Prism
@Dave: Well, I was rooting for the telegraph too. But in any case, the laws may apply in principle and be interpreted to fit today's needs, even if the technology itself is vastly different. At least the foundation was laid with the original regulations, as opposed to building something new from the ground up, which seems to take an awfully long time in our legal process.
Gigi   India's Version of Prism Even Worse   9/18/2013 5:27:44 AM
Re: National security
Sudha, transperency is verymuch required. I think the constitution is offering such liberities
Sudha N Bharadwaj   India's Version of Prism Even Worse   9/16/2013 9:43:04 PM
Re: National security
@Gigi, If so there is need for transparency, don't you think? Not much is known and the general belief is much more than what is known is happening. One needs to know whether the State is upholding democracy every step of the way.
David Wagner   India's Version of Prism Even Worse   9/16/2013 1:35:56 PM
Re: World's version of Prism
Agreed, Susan. And frankly, I'm not really pleased by the thought our current lawmakers trying to do anything with technology. Still, I'm a little frightened that we can look at the telegraph and the internet and say "same thing." If that's so, i want the telegraph to win our March Madness poll.
Henrisha   India's Version of Prism Even Worse   9/16/2013 10:39:05 AM
Re: Wow
You're right, Pedro. Whatever reasons the government has, I don't think that they can actually justify this. It just seems extreme and it basically encroaches on everybody's right to their privacy.
Gigi   India's Version of Prism Even Worse   9/14/2013 11:06:01 AM
National security
sudha, should we worry about it. its a part of national security
Susan Nunziata   India's Version of Prism Even Worse   9/13/2013 7:55:52 PM
Re: World's version of Prism
@Zaius: Yes, to your point I think businesses would be hard pressed these days to find any country in which this type of surveillance is NOT going on, whetner it's being conducted overtly or covertly.

Susan Nunziata   India's Version of Prism Even Worse   9/13/2013 7:52:01 PM
Re: World's version of Prism
@Dave: Quite right: "i don't know whether to be thrilled at the wisdom of our lawmakers or frightened by their inability to keep up."

It's a big of both. I see this partly as lawmakers setting precedents today based on old laws because that is easier (and easily done under the public radar) compared to the public prcess required to get new laws passed. It also shows that, while the technologies and media may have changed, basic human nature and tendency of government overstepping its boundaries has not changed.


David Wagner   India's Version of Prism Even Worse   9/13/2013 6:22:57 PM
Re: Wow
@Pedro- Isn't it almost gratifying to know that you ca distrust all governments equally. :)
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