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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

CDR collection: Govt comes under fire for ‘surveillance’ bid, says fixing call drops

The Indian Express reported Wednesday that cellphone operators had red-flagged ‘surveillance’ after local units of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) sought call data records of all mobile subscribers across several pockets of the country for specific days over the past few months.

Written by Harikishan Sharma , Pranav Mukul | New Delhi | Updated: March 19, 2020 11:06:45 am
Indian government call data records, surveillance indian government, call records CAA protest India, Indian Express news Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in Lok Sabha on Wednesday. (PTI)

The government came under attack in Lok Sabha Wednesday for seeking call data records of all mobile subscribers across pockets of the country, with the Congress calling it a “matter of great concern” and demanding adjournment of business in the House to discuss the matter.

The Indian Express reported Wednesday that cellphone operators had red-flagged ‘surveillance’ after local units of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) sought call data records of all mobile subscribers across several pockets of the country for specific days over the past few months.

In an official statement, the Ministry of Communications said: “There is no infringement of privacy of any person. No personal details are collected. There is no tracking of any phone number.” It said data of calls had been sought to address “numerous complaints” regarding “quality of service of Telecommunications Network, call drops, echo, cross connections, incomplete or poor caller experience”.

In a notice of adjournment motion sent to the Secretary General of Lok Sabha, Congress MP Manickam B Tagore said: “Elevating questions of surveillance and alleged violation of consumer privacy pointers mandated by the Supreme Court, the federal government has been searching for call knowledge records (CDRs) of all cell subscribers throughout a number of pockets of the nation is a matter of great concern.”

Though his notice was not allowed by Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, Congress members tried to raise the issue in the House.

Soon after the House assembled at 11 am, Congress member Manish Tewari tried to raise the matter: “Speaker Sir, this is contempt of the Supreme Court.” But the Speaker did not let him speak on the matter. During Question Hour too, he tried to raise the matter of surveillance.

When Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was replying to a supplementary question asked by RSP member N K Premachandran on the voluntary retirement scheme in BSNL, Tewari stood up and asked: “Why is there mass surveillance of telephones going on? Why is it happening? Why are you violating the Supreme Court judgment? Why are you violating the right to privacy? Please answer.” Prasad did not respond to his questions.

Earlier, outside the House, Tewari said: “The reports which have emerged in the public space are extremely disturbing because the government has decided that it will carry out mass surveillance against the citizens of India.”

“A sinister, pre-meditated, orchestrated plot has been put in place in order to unleash a mass surveillance programme on the citizens of India, which is an absolute transgression of the Right to Privacy guaranteed by the Supreme Court in a 9-0 judgment,” he said.

“We strongly condemn and we deprecate this assault on the fundamental freedoms which have been provided in the Constitution and have been interpreted by the Supreme Court of India. An ‘Orwellian state’ is sought to be created and we would ask the government, we would hold the government to account that in violation and transgression of the rules, which were tightened by the then UPA government in 2013, with regard to obtaining call detail records, with regard to electronic interception of telephones and with regard to cyber communication. Why and how are these things being violated with impunity on a daily basis,” he said.

In an official statement, the Ministry of Communications said: “There is no infringement of privacy of any person. No personal details are collected. There is no tracking of any phone number.”

“Numerous complaints are received regarding quality of service of Telecommunications Network, call drops, echo, cross-connections, incomplete or poor caller experience. DoT in coordination with Telecom Service Providers has been endeavouring to identify the problem areas of dark spots or the areas without sufficient Telecom Tower coverage which result in Network issues and call drops. Various measures such as erection of additional mobile towers, placement of cell on wheels, drive tests etc. have been undertaken to address the mobile tower deficiency and coverage,” it said.

“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. For this purpose, total data of calls made during any particular time period from the identified cell phone tower locations from where the complaints are received is collected to enable analysis. However, this data is anonymous and does not contain names of either the maker or receiver of calls,” it stated.

In a statement, Rajan Mathews, Director General of Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which had raised the issue with DoT, said: “We are pleased to note that the DoT has in a statement issued today, reiterated its purposes behind such data requests… the telecom service providers are keen to point out that we work in close cooperation with the DoT on, among other things, issues pertaining to network quality especially on issues of RoW (Right of Way) which have been plaguing the industry for many years. We are thankful to the DoT for their continuing efforts and focus on improving network quality of service especially related to RoW. We will continue to work actively with the DoT to ensure customers enjoy affordable and quality services.”

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