The Guardian’s revelation that a US agency was snooping on millions of mobile phones following a court order, should not come as a shocker to Indians. In this country where privacy laws are either nonexistent or lax, snooping by law enforcing agencies in common and invokes lesser reaction than the West.
Dozens of law enforcing agencies, may it be from police or the revenue, keep a tab on lakhs of conversations taking place on mobile phones and landlines in the country every day. Sometimes the snooping is intelligence-based, while many a times it is unexplained, preemptive and unwarranted. So well entrenched is snooping a part of intelligence gathering in India that the nation’s top intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau, has been traditionally accused of listening to telephone conversations of the Opposition, bureaucrats, journalists etc.
Journalists are prominently on the list of persons on whom intelligence and police agencies maintain surveillance. With media getting more assertive each passing day, and more secrets of the establishment tumbling out of closets, it is but natural that the ruling disposition wants law enforcement agencies to keep a tab on journalists. The idea is not just to keep a tab on what they are doing, but also to know who do they speak to? What do they speak? Who passes on information to them? Etc.
While legal surveillance is still a difficult thing in India since any such moves is still scrutinized by a committee of bureaucrats, illegal surveillance by law enforcement agencies is rampant all over the country. The information gathered by these agencies is either archived for future use or passed on to interested parties for personal gains. Law enforcing agencies commonly procure call data record (CDR) of `suspects’ to derive information.
As journalists, we can take some precautions to ensure that nobody snoops on us, and the source is protected. Even if you are being snooped, these precautions can help you ensure that someone who is not expected to listen to you does not hear what you and your source are talking.
1) Speak to sources in person: This is a thumb rule # 1 to avoid getting snooped. Nothing is as safe as speaking to your source in person. I have observed that sources open up more if you are meeting them in person. The eyeball to eyeball contact helps develop confidence between a journalist and a source. There is nobody to snoop on you when you and your source meet over a cup of coffee (unless your source is into anti-national activity and is already under physical surveillance).
2) Avoid taking names: Snoopers are interested to continue if they find some catchwords in your conversations. If you stop taking names or make references while talking to your sources, your conversation may hardly be interesting for them to hear. Avoid taking names or using references that may provide hints to snoopers about the discussion or what is going on in your mind.
3) Limit your cellphone use: Mobile telephony is the best and most exploited technology by intelligence agencies. Mobile phones are easiest to be tapped, can provide your near accurate location and can give a pattern of your conversation with sources. Avoid talking to sources on mobile phones unless necessary. Even if you do, limit yourself and meet that source in person.
4) Use landlines to maximum: This is the thumb rule # 2 journalists should keep it in mind. The landline business is still controlled by the government and law enforcing agencies find it difficult to manipulate government servants in landline telephony business unless they have sufficient reason to seek surveillance. Though law enforcing agencies can procure CDRs of landlines as well, but active surveillance of landlines is difficult without a reason.
5) Be objective while talking: In a bid to flatter sources or gain their confidence, journalists often tend to talk loose on phone while speaking to sources. This can not only land you in trouble, but can give room to law enforcing agencies to put you under active legal surveillance. Sources also at times try to extract information from you by throwing bait. Control yourself and be objective while speaking to sources on phone. Cut short conversation if you find your source is seeking any information.
6) Use multiple mobile connections: Use more than one mobile phone connections and use them alternately to speak to sources if you suspect you may be snooped. Law enforcing agencies do not have time and resources to identify your connections and put all of them under surveillance (unless they suspect you to be involved in anti-national activity).
7) Stay clean: Journalists are also tempted to buy mobile phone connections on someone else’s name to avoid getting snooped. In Mumbai, such connections are called `Khacha’ or procured on bogus documents. Strictly avoid using such connections as they may land you in trouble and invite prosecution. You also never know who has used the connection before and may have to face consequences for it.
8) Nothing is impossible: Remember, gathering intelligence is not just snooping. There are many other ways to get details on you. By observing above caution, you can at most minimize chances of agencies from snooping on you. These cautions in no way give you license to violate laws or get into any anti-national activity. Mind well, if you get into any anti-national or illegal activity, the law will get to you irrespective of how smart you try to be.