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No Surveillance, Call Data Records Sought to Improve Service: Govt

Congress has slammed the demand for mass call records as creating an ‘Orwellian state’. 

Updated
India
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The government has asked telecom operators for call data records (CRD) of all mobile subscribers across several states for specific days of the last few months, The Indian Express has reported.

This unusual request has not only raised serious questions about the alleged violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on privacy, but has also irked telecom operators into raising concerns about surveillance with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT).

According to the Express report, CDR of consumers in the circles of Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab have been sought.

On Wednesday evening, Dot issued a detailed response on the issue, denying any attempts at using the information to violate the privacy of users.

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The department clarified that that all the data was anonymised and it was sought to improve the quality of call services.

“All mobile phone subscribers can be assured that the above exercise is only with the objective of improving network quality. The data collected is anonymised. There is no surveillance of any kind,” the clarification said.

However, the response did not address the question about why it did not clarify the purpose of requesting CDR earlier. Telecom executives have stated the request isn’t a one-off but has been on for the past several months.

“It has been happening for several months now but during January and February, we started seeing these mass requests,” a senior executive of a telecom operator told Express on the condition of anonymity.

The Congress, on Wednesday, 18 March, slammed the government over media reports claiming that it was carrying out surveillance of citizens in transgression of the Right to Privacy and accused it of seeking the creation of a surveillance state.

Call Records During CAA Protests, Delhi Polls

Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents all major telecom operators, red-flagged these requests in a complaint to Anshu Prakash, Secretary, Department of Telecommunications on 12 February.

According to the Express report, the COAI, in its note to Prakash stated, “CDRs sought for specific routes/areas may lead to allegations of surveillance, especially in a state like Delhi having numerous VVIP zones having offices and residences of ministers, MPs, Judges, etc.”

In the Delhi circle, with nearly 53 million subscribers, The Indian Express has learnt, CDRs of consumers were sought by the DoT for 2, 3 and 4 February this year.

Incidentally, this coincides with the city-wide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Moreover, the campaigning for Delhi elections ended on 6 February and polls were held two days later.

COAI, in its complaint, has said that in their requests, the DoT units have mentioned two major issues which amount to the violation of privacy:

  • Neither the intended purpose for requisitioning these CDRs.
  • No specific user specified whose call records are sought to be monitored. This indicates a sweeping collection of records of lakhs of people.
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What the Rules Say

The current requests have raised concerns also because they appear to not be conforming to any of the prescribed guidelines on handling of CDRs by authorities.

In 2013, following a furore over unauthorised access to CDRs of several politicians, including then Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, the UPA government had moved to tighten the guidelines for obtaining the call records.

Under the new guidelines, after clearance from the Home Secretary, officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police (SP) and above alone were authorised to seek such details from telecom operators.

In addition to this, the SPs are required to give a mandatory declaration to District Magistrates (DMs) about the CDRs obtained every month.

Privacy Judgment

In the Puttaswamy judgment in 2017, the Supreme Court had held that any action that violates the privacy of a citizen has to undergo four tests: the existence of a law, proportionality, legitimate state aim/purpose and the procedure.

Similar to Edward Snowden’s Revelations

Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2016 exposed the United States spying on its own citizens by scooping up millions of phone records . The Guardian’s reports revealed how the United States’ National Security Agency, through a secret programme called PRISM, also had direct access to the servers of US tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, among others.

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Govt Creating ‘Orwellian State’: Cong

Congress Spokesperson Manish Tewari alleged that the BJP government is seeking to create an 'Orwellian state' by indulging in a "premeditated conspiracy" for which the Congress held it responsible and accountable.

The issue was highlighted in the wake of media reports that claimed cellphone operators red-flagged 'surveillance' after government wanted call records of all users.

Raising questions of surveillance and alleged violation of user privacy guidelines mandated by the Supreme Court, the government has been seeking call data records (CDRs) of all mobile subscribers across several pockets of the country for specific days over the past few months, the reports alleged on Wednesday.

"The reports which have emerged in the public are extremely disturbing because the government has decided to carry out mass surveillance of citizens of India. A sinister, pre-meditated and orchestrated plot has been put in place in order to unleash a mass surveillance programme on the citizens, which is an absolute transgression of the Right to Privacy guaranteed by the SC in a 9-0 judgment," Tewari told reporters.

"We strongly condemn and deprecate this assault on the fundamental freedom which have been provided in the Constitution and have been interpreted by the Supreme Court of India," he said.

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CDR Sought In Order to Improve Service Quality: Govt

The DoT, in a lengthy clarification, stated that “numerous complaints are received regarding quality of service of Telecommunications Network, call drops, echo, cross connections, incomplete or poor caller experience.”

The department also stated that it had developed an “in house software tool” to analyse big data and accurately ascertain call drops in any area.

Justifying the request for bulk call records data, it said that “big data analytics techniques can be used to identify such calls and the accurate information of call drops in specific areas. DoT will be better equipped to take up such cases and areas with the Telecom Service Providers based on actual data.”

“However, this data is anonymous and does not contain names of either the maker or receiver of calls. There is no infringement of privacy of any person. No personal details are collected. There is no tracking of any phone number,” said the statement.

(The story was updated at 10PM IST on 18 March)

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