“Pray it works,” read the text message on Mohammad Ahmad Siddibapa’s instant-message screen, less than 24 hours before bombs tore through Hyderabad on February 21, 2013, killing 19 people and injuring 117. The alleged Indian Mujahideen (IM) commander and his Karachi-based chief, Riyaz ‘Bhatkal’ Shahbandri, had instant-messaged for weeks, bouncing ideas on bomb design and execution off each other. The prayers were redundant.
Ever since 2009, an investigation by The Indian Express has found, India’s intelligence services have been intercepting conversations like these, after they rolled out a 100-crore, multi-agency programme to spy on digital communication between terrorists. It failed in the past, though — and the bad news is it will fail again.
For months now, the intelligence services have been engaged in an increasingly desperate effort to stop the next 26/11-seeking communication from Maharashtra and Kashmir men fighting with Islamist insurgents in Iraq; Indian jihadists in Afghanistan; the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) leadership’s orders to operatives.
The digital espionage system has almost certainly picked up these communications — but they’ve remained incomprehensible to India’s intelligence services, because of the failure to beat digital encryption technology. “There hasn’t been one single case where we’ve successfully managed to penetrate encrypted communications between terrorists,” admitted a senior Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) officer.
Increasingly, India’s intelligence establishment believes the only answer is to compel internet firms to locate their servers in India, as Brazil has done and Germany is contemplating — thus forcing them to comply with lawful interception orders.
Inside an elegant Art Deco mansion in central Delhi, its lush gardens dotted with flowerbeds, trees and the odd peacock, staff at the Intelligence Bureau’s (IB) operations directorate have again been staring hard at data snatched from cyberspace, hoping that somewhere in the cloud of ones and zeros lie the leads they need to preempt new terror threats.
India’s desperate war rests on a system called Netra, commissioned in 2009, drawing its name from the Sanskrit word for eye — or, more prosaically, from its job description, NEtwork TRaffic Analysis.
Netra was born in the years after 9/11, when India’s intelligence services realised terrorist groups like the LeT were making extensive use of the internet, and wanted tools similar to the US’s PRISM digital espionage system. Housed in hundreds of internet hubs across the country, Netra vacuums up terabytes of data, and then trawls through it for keywords of interests. The system, designed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, has won several technology awards.
The system has done what it is designed to do, intelligence officials said. It helps track traffic to websites the intelligence services suspect might be linked to jihadi activity. That opens the way to locate target computers and continued…