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India's 'Big Brother': The Central Monitoring System (CMS)

Posted by Maria Xynou at Apr 08, 2013 07:05 AM |
In this post, Maria Xynou looks at India´s Central Monitoring System (CMS) project and examines whether it can target individuals´ communications data, regardless of whether they are involved in illegal activity.
India's 'Big Brother': The Central Monitoring System (CMS)

Source: marsmet501 on flickr


This research was undertaken as part of the 'SAFEGUARDS' project that CIS is undertaking with Privacy International and IDRC.


Starting from this month, all telecommunications and Internet communications in India will be analysed by the government and its agencies. What does that mean? It means that everything we say or text over the phone, write, post or browse over the Internet will be centrally monitored by Indian authorities. This totalitarian type of surveillance will be incorporated in none other than the Central Monitoring System (CMS).

The Central Monitoring System (CMS)

The Central Monitoring System (CMS) may just be another step in the wrong direction, especially since India currently lacks privacy laws which can protect citizens from potential abuse. Yet, all telecommunications and Internet communications are to be monitored by Indian authorities through the CMS, despite the fact that it remains unclear how our data will be used.

The CMS was prepared by the Telecom Enforcement, Resource and Monitoring (TREM) and by the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) and is being manned by the Intelligence Bureau. The CMS project is likely to start operating this month and the government plans on creating a platform that will include all the service providers in Delhi, Haryana and Karnataka. The Information Technology Amendment Act 2008 enables e-surveillance and central and regional databases will be created to help central and state level law enforcement agencies in interception and monitoring. Without any manual intervention from telecom service providers, the CMS will equip government agencies with Direct Electronic Provisioning, filters and alerts on the target numbers. The CMS will also enable Call Data Records (CDR) analysis and data mining to identify the personal information of the target numbers.

The estimated set up cost of the CMS is Rs. 4 billion and it will be connected with the Telephone Call Interception System (TCIS) which will help monitor voice calls, SMS and MMS, fax communications on landlines, CDMA, video calls, GSM and 3G networks. Agencies which will have access to the CMS include the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), the Narcotics Control Bureau, and the Enforcement Directorate (ED). In particular, last October, the NIA approached the Department of Telecom requesting its connection with the CMS, which would help it intercept phone calls and monitor social networking sites without the cooperation of telcos. However, the NIA is currently monitoring eight out of 10,000 telephone lines and if it is connected with the CMS, the NIA will also get access to e-mails and other social media platforms. Essentially, the CMS will be converging all the interception lines at one location and Indian law enforcement agencies will have access to them. The CMS will also be capable of intercepting our calls and analyzing our data on social networking sites. Thus, even our attempts to protect our data from ubiquitous surveillance would be futile.

In light of the CMS being installed soon, the Mumbai police took the initiative of setting up a ´social media lab´ last month, which aims to monitor Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. This lab would be staffed by 20 police officers who would keep an eye on issues being publicly discussed and track matters relating to public security. According to police spokesman Satyanarayan Choudhary, the lab will be used to identify trends among the youth and to plan law and order accordingly. However, fears have arisen that the lab may be used to stifle political debate and freedom of expression. The arrest of two Indian women last November over a Facebook post which criticized the shutdown of Mumbai after the death of politician Bal Thackeray was proof that the monitoring of our communications can potentially oppress our freedom and human rights. And now that all our online activity will be under the microscope...will the CMS security trade-off be worth it?

Surveillance in the name of Security

In a digitised world, threats to security have been digitised. Terrorism is considered to be a product of globalisation and as such, the Internet appears to be a tool used by terrorists. Hence governments all around the world are convinced that surveillance is probably one of the most effective methods in detecting and prosecuting terrorists, as all movement, action, interests, ideas and everything else that could define an individual are closely being monitored under the ´surveillance umbrella´ True; if everything about our existence is being closely monitored and analysed, it seems likely that we will instantly be detected and prosecuted if engaged in illegal activity. But is that the case with big data? According to security expert Bruce Schneier, searching for a terrorist through data mining is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Generally, the bigger the amount of data, the bigger the probability of an error in matching profiles. Hence, when our data is being analysed through data mining of big data, the probability of us being charged for a crime we did not commit is real. Nonetheless, the CMS is going to start operating soon in an attempt to enable law enforcement agencies to tackle crime and terrorism.

A few days ago, I had a very interesting chat with an employee at SAS Institute (India) Pvt. Ltd. in Bangalore, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of SAS Institute Inc. SAS is a company which produces software solutions and services to combat fraud in financial services, identify cross-sell opportunities in retail, and all the business issues it addresses are based on three capabilities: information management, analytics and business intelligence. Interestingly enough, SAS also produces social network analysis which ´helps institutions detect and prevent fraud by going beyond individual and account views to analyze all related activities and relationships at a network dimension´. In other words, social network analysis by SAS would mean that, through Facebook, for example, all of an individual's´ interests, activities, habits, relationships and everything else that could be, directly or indirectly, linked to an individual would be mapped out in relation to other individuals. If, for example, several individuals appear to have mutual interests and activities, there is a high probability that an individual will be associated with the same type of organization as the other individuals, which could potentially be a terrorist organization. Thus, an essential benefit of the social network analysis solution is that it uncovers previously unknown network connections and relationships, which significantly enables more efficient investigations.

According to the SAS employee I spoke to, the company provides social network analysis to Indian law enforcement agencies and aims at supporting the CMS project in an attempt to tackle crime and terrorism. Furthermore, the SAS employee argued that their social network analysis solution only analyzes open source data which is either way in the public online domain, hence respecting individuals´ online privacy. In support of the Mumbai ´social media lab´, cyber security expert, Vijay Mukhi, argued:

´There may be around 60 lakh twitter users in the city and millions of other social media network users. The police will require a budget of around Rs 500 crore and huge resources such as complex software, unique bandwidth and manpower to keep a track of all of them. To an extent, the police can monitor select people who have criminal backgrounds or links with anti-social or anti-national elements...[...]...Even the apprehension that police is reading your tweet is wrong. The volume of networking on social media sites is beyond anybody's capacity. Deleting any user's message is humanly impossible. It is even difficult to find the origin of messages and shares. However, during the recent Delhi gangrape incident such monitoring of data in public domain helped the police gauge the mood of the people.´

Another cyber security expert argued that the idea that the privacy of our messages and online activity would be intercepted is a misconception. The expert stated that:

´The police are actually looking out for open source intelligence for which information in public domain on these sites is enough. Through the lab, police can access what is in the open source and not the message you are sending to your friend.´

Cyber security experts also argued that the purpose of the creation of the Mumbai social media lab and the CMS in general is to ensure that Indian law enforcement agencies are better informed about current public opinion and trends among the youth, which would enable them to take better decisions on a policy level. It was also argued that, apparently, there is no harm in the creation of such monitoring centres, especially since other countries, such as the U.S., are conducting the same type of surveillance, while have enacted stringent privacy regulations. In other words, the monitoring of our communications appears to be justified, as long as it is in the name of security.

CMS targeting individuals: myth or reality?

The CMS is not a big deal, because it will not target us individually...or at least that is what cyber security experts in India appear to be claiming. But is that really the case? Lets look at the following hypothesis:

The CMS can surveille and target individuals, if Indian law enforcement agencies have access to individuals content and non-content data and are simultaneously equipped with the necessary technology to analyse their data.

The two independent variables of the hypothesis are: (1) Indian law enforcement agencies have access to individuals´ content and non-content data, (2) Indian law enforcement agencies are equipped with the necessary technology to analyse individuals´ content and non-content data. The dependent variable of the hypothesis is that the CMS can surveille and target individuals, which can only be proven once the two independent variables have been confirmed. Now lets look at the facts.

The surveillance industry in India is a vivid reality. ClearTrail is an Indian surveillance technology company which provides communication monitoring solutions to law enforcement agencies around the world and which is a regular sponsor of ISS world surveillance trade shows. In fact, ClearTrail sponsored the ISS world surveillance trade show in Dubai last month - another opportunity to sell its surveillance technologies to law enforcement agencies around the world. ClearTrail´s solutions include, but are not limited to, mass monitoring of IP and voice networks, targeted IP monitoring, tactical Wi-Fi monitoring and off-the-air interception. Indian law enforcement agencies are equipped with such technologies and solutions and thus have the technical capability of targeting us individually and of monitoring our ´private´ online activity.

Shoghi Communications Ltd. is just another example of an Indian surveillance technology company. WikiLeaks has published a brochure with one of Shoghi´s solutions: the Semi Active GSM Monitoring System. This system can be used to intercept communications from any GSM service providers in the world and has a 100% target call monitor rate. The fact that the system is equipped with IMSI analysis software enables it to extract the suspect´s actual mobile number from the network without any help from the service provider. Indian law enforcement agencies are probably being equipped with such systems by Shoghi Communications, which would enable the CMS to monitor telecommunications more effectively.

As previously mentioned, SAS provides Indian law enforcement agencies social network analysis solutions. In general, many companies, Indian and international, produce surveillance products and solutions which they supply to law enforcement agencies around the world. However, if such technology is used solely to analyse open source data, how do law enforcement agencies expect to detect criminals and terrorists? The probability of an individual involved in illegal activity to disclose secrets and plans in the public online sphere is most likely significantly low. So given that law enforcement agencies are equipped with the technology to analyse our data, how do they get access to our content data in order to detect criminals? In other words, how do they access our ´private´ online communications to define whether we are a terrorist or not?

Some of the biggest online companies in the world, such as Google and Microsoft, disclose our content data to law enforcement agencies around the world. Sure, a lawful order is a prerequisite for the disclosure of our data...but in the end of the day, law enforcement agencies can and do have access to our content data, such as our personal emails sent to friends, our browsing habits, the photos we sent online and every other content created or communicated via the Internet. Law enforcement requests reports published by companies, such as Google and Microsoft, confirm the fact that law enforcement agencies have access to both our content and non-content data, much of which was disclosed to Indian law enforcement agencies. Thus, having access to our ´private´ online data, all Indian law enforcement agencies need is the technology to analyse our data and match patterns. The various surveillance technology companies operating in India, such as ClearTrail and Shoghi Communications, ensure that Indian law enforcement agencies are equipped with the necessary technology to meet these ends.

The hypothesis that the CMS can surveille and target us individually can be confirmed, since Indian law enforcement agencies have access to our content and non-content data, while simultaneously being equipped with the necessary technology to analyse our data. Thus, the arguments brought forth by cyber security experts in India appear to be weak in terms of validity and reliability and the CMS appears to be a new type of ´Big Brother´ upon us. But what does this mean in terms of our privacy and human rights?

The telephone tapping laws in India are weak and violate constitutional protections. The Information Technology Amendment Act 2008 has enabled e-surveillance to reach its zenith, but yet surveillance projects, such as the CMS, lack adequate legal backing. No privacy legislation currently exists in India which can protect us from potential abuse. The confirmed CMS hypothesis indicates that all individuals can potentially be targeted and monitored, regardless of whether they have been involved in illegal activity. Yet, India currently lacks privacy laws which can protect individuals from the infringement of their privacy and other human rights. The following questions in regards to the CMS remain vague: Who can authorise the interception of telecommunications and Internet communications? Who can authorise access to intercepted data? Who can have access to data? Can data monitored by the CMS be shared between third parties and if so, under what conditions? Is data monitored by the CMS retained and if so, for how long and under what conditions? Do individuals have the right to be informed about their communications being monitored and about data retained about them?

Immense vagueness revolves around the CMS, yet the project is due to start operating this month. In order to ensure that our right to privacy and other human rights are not breached, parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies in India is a minimal prerequisite. E-surveillance regulations should be enacted, which would cover both policy and legal issues pertaining to the CMS project and which would ensure that human rights are not infringed. The overall function of the CMS project and its use of data collected should be thoroughly examined on a legal and policy level prior to its operation, as its current vagueness and excessive control over communications can create a potential for unprecedented abuse.

The necessity and utility of the CMS remain unclear and thus it has not been adequately proven yet that the security trade-off is worth it. One thing, though, is clear: we are giving up a lot of our data....we are giving up the control of our lives...with the hope that crime and terrorism will be reduced. Does this make sense?


This was cross-posted in Medianama


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