Karela Fry

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Is your phone tapped?

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Mr. Amar Singh’s phone was tapped by Reliance Communications on the basis of a forged letter. The case has thrown up some interesting sidelights. TOI claims in its lead story:

Some startling figures tumbled out on rampant phone tapping in the country when telecom service provider Reliance Communications told the Supreme Court on Monday that the authorities had asked it to tap 1.51 lakh phone numbers in a five-year span between 2006 and 2010.

This works out to an average of over 30,000 telephone interceptions every year by a single service provider on the orders of various law enforcing agencies. Or, over 82 telephones were intercepted every day by a single service provider.

Reliance is the second-largest service provider with a subscriber base of 12.57 crore as in 2010. The biggest service provider, Bharti Airtel, had 15.25 crore subscribers in 2010, while Vodafone’s subscriber base was just a shade lower than Reliance’s at 12.43 crore. State-owned BSNL came fourth with 8.67 crore subscribers.

If Reliance’s ratio of phones tapped to the number of its subscribers were to be taken as representative and applied to other service providers, it is a fair assumption that government agencies were tapping more than one lakh phones every year.

TOI treads lightly on the powerful. Other newspapers were more straightforward in their reporting. Law et al News reported:

Reliance Communications Monday [sic] filed an affidavit before Supreme Court denying all allegations levelled against it in the Amar Singh illegal phone tapping case. The Anil Ambani promoted telecom company claimed that Joint Commissioner Delhi Police and Deputy Secretary, Home were informed about the tapping of Amar Singh’s phone number but the letter was not replied or responded to.

In the previous hearing of the case, Supreme Court bench of Justice GS Singhvi and Justice AK Ganguly had questioned as to whether [sic] the concerned officers (Joint Commissioner) were informed of the tapping? Because if he was informed he would have objected in view of the fact that no such request had been made and the case would have come to notice [sic] of police at that very time.

The bench had also raised doubts on [sic] the company’s credentials for acting on letters having many spelling and grammatical errors and on a communication which prima facie appeared to be a fake document. The letters were later proved to be forged on investigation by special cell of Delhi Police.

The Kolkata Telegraph ran this story:

The Supreme Court today asked the Centre why it had not cancelled Reliance Infocomm’s licence for tapping Amar Singh’s phones on the basis of “forged” letters riddled with grammatical errors that should have aroused suspicion.

“If this type of (forged) order is acted upon by a service provider, no person in this country is safe. Every moment, he risks surveillance by an unscrupulous service provider,” Justice G.S. Singhvi, part of a two-judge bench, said.

Justice Singhvi expressed concern at such laxity in tapping procedures and pointed to its perils.

“Tapping is a special power intended to be used in extraordinary situations for the object of protecting state security. There are several master forgers. They can always present such authorisation letters, asking the phone line of the army chief to be tapped and diverted to some terrorist organisation or a foreign country,” he warned.

The court had stayed the publication of the tapped conversations on a plea by Singh.

But since then, the Centre for Public Interest Litigation has been seeking a vacation of the stay saying the conversations were with public servants.

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