India: Gujarat phone snooping sparks privacy storm
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India: Gujarat phone snooping sparks privacy storm

Revelations this week of police surveillance of 93,000 phone numbers are the latest in a long line breaches of privacy in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat

The top cop of India’s ever-contentious state of Gujarat has stirred the hornets’ nest by scaling down significantly the capacity of the police department to routinely requisition mobile and fixed line phone service providers for Call Detail Records (CDRs) of their subscribers without ascribing any reason.

Reports in the local press have detailed that the Director General of Police, Amitabh Pathak – appointed to the position in February this year – had stumbled on to the discomforting fact that, over the past six months alone, mobile phone companies had handed over CDRs of almost 100,000 subscribers to police officers at various levels. Most of these details had been requisitioned without necessary documents accompanying the request.

What has added fuel to the controversy is the fact that many of the phones for which CDRs were scrutinised over the past six months include those of senior police officers and bureaucrats. The Hindustan Times quoted an executive working for a mobile phone company saying that thought rules specify that police should provide details of the case or the First Information Report along with the request. This is rarely done with mobile companies playing along to stay on the right side of law enforcers.

Gujarat has a track record of monitoring physical movement and snooping on telephone conversations of political opponents of chief minister Narendra Modi and other detractors of the state government. While I was researching on my biography of Modi, a source told me of his fascination for the historically recorded spy network of Shivaji, the 17th century Maratha warrior king who waged a relentless battle against the Mughal Empire.

Shortly after taking charge as chief minister in October 2001, Modi fine-tuned the intelligence set-up in the state and kept a hawk’s eye on detractors – more so after the Godhra carnage and the riots that followed. One such high-profile adversary was Haren Pandya, a one-time cabinet colleague who was given his marching orders in August 2002. Those who thought that the matter ended with Pandya’s sacking were mistaken: he was gunned down in a busy park in Ahmedabad on a morning in March 2003 when returning home from his morning walk.

The media reported then that Pandya’s telephone was tapped and that Modi knew about Pandya’s interactions in real time. These included a deposition before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal – an inquiry instituted by civil society groups.

In the past decade or so there have been repeated calls for greater transparency regarding surveillance of telephones. Prior to the recent order of Pathak, the CDRs could be sought by officers as junior as Inspectors. This gave rise to the view that most of these junior officers were asking for the details to satisfy political masters. This apprehension was heightened when it was learnt that the CDRs that were supplied by phone companies include senior officials.

Though Pathak issued new guidelines regarding requisitioning of CDRs earlier this week, apprehensions remain regarding the misuse of provisions. The fresh order says that only officers at the level of Superintendent (senior most officers in smaller districts or heads of police districts in bigger cities) could obtain CDRs from mobile service providers.

India lacks transparent norms regarding tapping of telephones. New Delhi is currently gripped with a controversy over tracking the mobile phone of senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Arun Jaitley. In this case also the CDRs were acquired by a very junior police officer.

Details of who ordered the scrutiny of such a large number of phones in Gujarat are not known. But the disclosure does raise questions about violation of privacy of citizens in the state as the administration has not specified reasons behind such large scale snooping.