Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Passive Surveillance, Active Apprehensions

Ever so often the word 'technology' seems like a synonym for 'magic'.

A few months back, I was fascinated by the case of the 'Stuxnet' virus. A computer programme so meticulously created, it spread through innocuous pen-drives all over the world until it lodgded itself in its target: a particular type of centrifuges purchased by Iran from Siemens, Germany, and which was being used to enrich uranium, allegedly for nuclear weapons. A few months after its launch the virus found its target, set the centrifuges on a wild spin and rendered them completely unusable.

And now WikiLeaks reveals that just about everything you say or do on the communication networks can, and is being monitored in real time by companies and government departments that operate beyond the purview of any regulatory authority. They just tune their equipment on to satellites orbiting 36,000km away and pick out conversations that end up changing the course of wars (Kargil); demolish carefully crafted careers of politicians, fixers and journalists (Amar Singh, Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi), as and when the spooks (or their minders) decide the pull the plug on them.

WikiLeaks lists over 150 organisations who are engaged in this business, and, among them, two have been named from India: Shogi Communcations (Himachal Pradesh) and ClearTrail (Indore, MP). Google for ClearTrail and you are unlikely to find a company website easily, but they do seem to be hiring a lot of software talent. Their products are called mTrail, for mobile phone interception and ComTrail, which is
"devised for mass monitoring of IP and voice networks. It is equipped to handle millions of communications per day intercepted over high speed STM & Ethernet links. It doubles up as targeted monitoring system, speaker recognition, target location and instant analysis across thousands of terabytes."
Apparently there are over 33 such mass-surveillance sets with the state governments alone. The number of devices with private individuals and companies could be anybody's guess.

What is completely unclear, however, is whether these companies have build the equipment on their own (something commendable) or merely imported it from other countries like Israel. In the latter case, it is more than likely that the salesmen are playing the game both ways.

Either way, there seems to be plenty of trouble ahead!


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