Security overdrive: IB wants more phones tapped

Written by Rishi Raj | Nirbhay Kumar | New Delhi | Updated: Dec 25 2010, 09:03am hrs
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At a time when the government is in the thick of controversy over the leakage of tapped phone conversations of Niira Radia, owner of the public relations firm Vaishnavi, it has come up with a proposal that operators increase their infrastructure to tap phones manifold.

Mobile operators are flummoxed at the proposal of the Intelligence Bureau, which mandates them to upgrade their infrastructure to be able to tap the phones of 1% of their total subscriber base at any given point of time. Currently, operators are required to be able to tap 1,000 phone numbers. If the new proposal comes into effect, an operator with around 8 million subscribers in any given circle would have to set up infrastructure to tap around 80,000 numbers at a given point of time.

Three operators Bharti Airtel, Reliance Communications and Vodafone-Essar have more than 100 million subscriber on a pan-India basis.

Surprised at the proposal, the operators have told the IB that the cost of infrastructure upgrade would have to be borne by the government, which would be stupendous. When the government orders phone tap, it has to buy the bandwidth, which is a leased line running from the operators switching network to the network of the agency concerned on which the data is transferred. It is in buying this bandwidth in which the security agencies would have to run huge costs. To tap around 80,000 numbers at a time, considering that each call is of around five minutes, would require an investment of around $200 million in buying the required bandwidth on the part of the government, a official of a mobile firm told FE.

This cost would keep on rising as the subscriber base keeps increasing with the country adding around 15-20 million users each month. Further, all this investment has to be made upfront.

Since around eight agencies normally get into the phone tapping act like the IB, state police, enforcement directorate, directorate of revenue intelligence etc, each one of them would have to invest around $200 million for buying the bandwidth required. Apart from this, the agencies would also have to hire a whole set of database and system analysts to study the data. Official sources said such high investment would surely be a major issue, especially when it involves the state police.

Even the operators would have to incur heavy investments to meet the new requirement. We will have to set up several more lawful intercept monitoring (LIM) servers to be able to tap such a large number of phones, a technical expert with a mobile firm said. Currently, operators spend around Rs 3 lakh on servers which are capable of tapping 1,000 phone numbers. Operators said they were still working out the cost at their end since there were only three equipment makers for this kind of servers and the price was still being negotiated with.