Govt probes ‘snooping’ by Army equipment

'Off-the-air mobile phone interception equipment' were deployed in capital by section of Army brass.

Written by Ritu Sarin | New Delhi | Published: March 4, 2012 1:30 am

The Ministry of Defence may have denied reports that the office of Defence Minister A K Antony was “bugged” but sources have confirmed to The Sunday Express that the government and intelligence agencies are verifying “specific information” that at least two sets of “off-the-air mobile phone interception equipment” were deployed in the capital by a section of the Army brass.

It is understood that details of the equipment — manufactured in Ukraine and called “passive interceptors” in common parlance — were received by top officials in the government last month. Incidentally,this was the time that Army Chief General V K Singh’s date of birth controversy was playing out in court.

The Intelligence Bureau (IB) is understood to have since been asked to establish the veracity of the reports and locate the vehicles on which the snooping devices are believed to have been mounted.

Specific intelligence with the government describes the purchase of the off-the-air equipment in mid-2010 by an Army intelligence unit. The information is that the equipment — which can intercept telephone conversations within a 3-km radius — was mounted on two “private” vehicles. One is believed to have been a Tata Safari with a Rajasthan licence plate,the other a Maruti Esteem registered in Delhi.

According to intelligence received by the government,sources said,these two vehicles were routinely parked in residential bungalows on Krishna Menon Marg and Kushak Road,besides Delhi Cantonment.

When contacted by The Sunday Express,the Army information about misuse of off-the-air equipment was “speculative”. He said,“Such equipment is used only in counter-insurgency areas,it will never be used in the capital.”

What is significant is that reports of such “illegal” use of the equipment also come at a time when the IB is in the process of tracking down the owners and users of around 1,500 pieces of such off-the-air interceptors imported over a 10-year period.

The process of building an inventory of such equipment began two years ago after reports of the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) allegedly misusing their snooping equipment — mounted on SUVs called “eagles” — by deploying them in the diplomatic enclave in New Delhi.

The Ministry of Home Affairs subsequently asked Customs authorities for an inventory of all such imported equipment,and asked the IB to trace users including those in the private sector. That,sources say,is still work in progress.

Instructions were also issued to all non-government users to surrender the equipment,but according to sources,hardly anyone has come forward. Meetings with top officials of all intelligence agencies (including NTRO) have been held,prohibiting the use of such off-the-air equipment.

As far as the military establishment is concerned,it is only the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Signals Intelligence that uses such equipment in militancy-prone areas.

In fact,in recently released Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) issued by the MHA for legal interception of telephones,Signals Intelligence is listed as one of the nine “notified” agencies,but with a specific priviso: interception can be done only in Jammu and Kashmir,the North-East and Assam service areas.

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