Permitting prying

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The Union Cabinet’s approval of NATGRID has again raised fears of intrusion into citizens’ privacy in the absence of any privacy laws in the country. Iftikhar Gilani reports.

Union Cabinet’s approval of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), a dream project of Home Minister P Chidambaram has once again raised questions about the citizens’ right of privacy. Now your personal life is under official scanner, if you have a bank account, travel by any means, have credit card, use internet or conduct business. And there is no guarantee this information may not fall in wrong hands.

The proposal for the NATGRID system believed to be an effective anti-terror mechanism, originally conceptualised in December 2009 after the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, was pending with the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) since February. Most of the Western countries, from where this project has been copied, have strict privacy laws that India lacks so far. It is now a matter of great concern whether in the absence of a strong privacy law, the project may end up as providing a lethal arm to a “mad man”.

At one stage, the NATGRID appeared dying without even a start as many recruited for it began quitting and even its chief executive officer Captain Raghu Raman (47), indicated to put in the papers as he found the project not materialising.

Chidambaram had personally plucked Raghu Raman in December 2009 from Mahindra and Mahindra where he was heading the group providing corporate risk mitigation services to head the new agency with a hefty pay-packet of Rs 1.50 lakh on an 18-month contract that was coming to an end last month. Raghu Raman had quit the Indian Army in 1998 and jumped into the private sector to provide security to the commercial data on computer networks.

Only last month he was given a three-month extension and asked to wait for the government’s final decision. He was quite upset as the bureaucrats who blocked the status of the secretary to him kept needling him for drawing a fat salary that was almost double their salary and doing hardly any work.

Raghu Raman has been, however, the most busy man conceptualising the work of the agency from scratch and facing stumbling bureaucratic objections at every stage. Once he was totally exasperated when the Finance Ministry shot down his proposal to have complete data of the savings bank account holders of all banks on the ground that it would breach privacy of the customers that the banks are supposed to provide.

Chidambaram came to his rescue after he pointed out that it would be impossible to trace the terror money trail if the bank accounts are not opened to NATGRID. A decision was ultimately taken that the NATGRID or the district magistrate can snoop on the bank accounts with a prior permission of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

NATGRID will be linking up all data bases, whether these concern a bank account, credit card reservations, an insurance policy, land or house or a telephone connection, a vehicle registration, driving licence or a passport, phone calls, rail and travel reservations, within two years to provide ready information to the security and intelligence agencies at the press of the button.

Private telecom operators will be required to link up their databases with NATGRID as they have the biggest available verified data of customers that come handy for the agencies working on any terror activity.

The Home Ministry acknowledged sensitivity and secrecy of the data to be assembled by the grid in its presentation to the CCS, pointing out a special anti-leakage mechanism designed by Raghu Raman. Also, the access of the data will be given to only selected 11 authorised agencies.

These agencies include the Intelligence Bureau, external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Military Intelligence, Revenue Intelligence, National Intelligence Agency, National Security Council, Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation.

Personnel from these agencies will be working in NATGRID for liaison with parent organisations and help them use the data on the grid.

The presentation given for securing administrative and financial sanction envisages a total workforce of 290, including 98 outside consultants identified by the CEO, to be tasked with linking various databases in four phases in the next two years.

Raghu Raman’s plan is not to put the entire raw data on NATGRID but have only abstracted and approved subject of information that will allow the agencies to quickly reach the exact information available in the raw databank through a nationwide grid.

The new system is being created basically to help the government agencies combat terrorism and internal security threats by generating “actionable” intelligence through search and retrieval from the databases. The grid will have a command centre that will work as an anti-terror hotline and will have a trans-national connect to networks with data available in other countries that is useful to keep a tab on suspects.

In the first phase, NATGRID will be linking up only the databases that are available with the Centre and the crime records available with police. Only in the second phase, the NATGRID will cross-link different pieces of information and flag “tripwires” that indicate some unlawful or terrorist activity is in progress or likely to take place.

In this phase and onwards, NATGRID will recommend improvements of the databases and development of unconventional but highly valuable data sources like visitor records of jails and sales of materials like certain fertilisers that can be raw material for improvised explosives. Though the whole project is conceived to be implemented in four phases, the grid will start providing relevant information even while integration under these phases is in progress.

Critics say that NATGRID, would largely duplicate Hyderabad-based National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) working under NSA. It was set up to augment the technical intelligence capabilities of the country, with huge budget, manpower and technical resources. NTRO was set up for cyber security, crypto systems, strategic hardware and software development, strategic monitoring, data gathering and processing and aviation and remote sensing.

But, more so, the issue of privacy is set to generate much heat in coming days. Though, Home Ministry document acknowledges sensitivity and secrecy of the data available on the grid by stressing that it will be available to only selected 11 government agencies and a special mechanism will prevent any leakage, there is hardly a guarantee that it would not be accessed or disclosed to unauthorized persons.

Before the NATGRID begins operation, it is high time to provide legal protection to the citizens’ privacy. Last year, Ministry of Personal and Grievances in association with Ministry of Law had circulated an approach paper to country’s balance of security interests and privacy concern. But, nothing was heard, thereafter.

There is need to define privacy for the purpose. The confidential personal information disclosed by any individual to government or non-government entity should not be disclosed to third parties without his consent and sufficient safeguards be adopted in processing and storing such information.

(Iftikhar Gilani works with Tehelka group of newspapers)

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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