New Delhi: All set to crack down on illegal phone tapping, the Centre has asked the government agencies and state governments to return all surveillance equipment.
"MHA has not authorised any phone tapping of any political leaders," said Home Minister P Chidambaram in a damage control mode in Parliament last year.
But the ghost of illegal phone tapping that's been haunting the government and corporate India refuses to go away even a year later.
Now the Union Home ministry is cracking the whip and its beginning with its own backyard. All central and state monitoring agencies have been told to return any GSM equipment used for illegal tapping of phones back to the department of telecom. A secret MHA advisory to all state police departments says there will be crackdown on private individuals as well, which means corporate India is included.
In the recent past, the phone tapping of Niira Radia and Amar Singh has raised questions over the use and abuse of phone tapping equipment.
The MHA letter says since any usage or even possession of the machine is illegal, it will be punished, as off-the-air interception is a violation of Indian Telegraph Act 1885.
State and central agencies have been told to return the equipment to the Department of Telecom.
A DOT advisory dated December 31, 2010 to return the illegally imported equipment had evinced a poor response.
In fact, till six months ago, passive interception machines could be easily imported under the Open General Licence. It's now been placed in the restricted list.
The Department of Revenue Intelligence suspects there are over 1100 machines that have been imported in the past 3 years alone.
But the exercise could be a shot in the dark as the end users of these machines are still being traced.
In fact, an internal audit by the CAG of the NTRO had revealed that these machines were placed more frequently in cities rather then the international borders or even in naxal or insurgency hit areas - for which they were acquired.
This has given rise to suspicion that they were being used for tapping political and corporate rivals.
For the moment, it appears to be a fight between technology and a desperate attempt by the state to control it. And rather then being imported, the machines can always be assembled to escape the surveillance dragnet because off-the-air interception has proved by far to be the most convenient way of keeping tabs on ones rivals - political or in the corporate world.