Telecom companies operating in the Indian and Pakistan region are preparing for possible government requests intercept calls and monitor international long-distance (ILD) traffic with the military in India on high alert after tensions with the Pakistani military reignited a few weeks ago.
The companies responsible for telecom operations, especially in the northern and northwestern states near the Indian and Pakistan border, are ensuring that network security drills are conducted periodically. They are also expecting the Indian government to send specific requests especially when the tensions in the border are escalating.
Rajan Mathews, director general of Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), said that requests made by Indian government agencies or the armed forces to telecom service providers (TSPs) will remain “highly confidential and known only to the designated nodal officer in each TSP. The nodal officer is bound by strict confidentiality requirements.” When asked if specific requests were made by the said government, the director general is “unable to confirm if any requests have been received by operators.” The director general also represents Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel, and Reliance Jio Infocomm.
Experts in the telecom industry confirmed that carriers with licenses are technically equipped to track, monitor, and intercept calls on the grounds of national security. Appropriate authorities are also required to specify the targets for an interception.
Telecom companies show support
Companies in the telecom industry have also expressed support to the government and its armed forces. As reported, these companies can also perform temporary internet shutdowns and suspension of data services in regions where hostilities remain felt and armed conflict may arise anytime, all in the interest of national security.
So far, no internet shutdowns or suspensions have been ordered by the government as confirmed by the president of Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) and a senior official in the IT ministry of India.
Phone companies also keep constant track of all network traffic including attempts to infiltrate the network. In cases where a network intrusion is suspected to occur, these companies are expected to report the incidence to the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In). CERT-In will then prompt the companies to add more security responses or whatever appropriate measures should be taken.
History of Indian, Pakistan tension
The recently launched airstrikes from New Delhi to a Pakistani territory sparked a decades-old tension between the two countries, and it also does not help that both are armed with nuclear weapons.
Historians argue that the tense relationship between the neighbors started after the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 by the British government. The region was ever since divided into a primarily Hindu India and a Muslim-dominated Pakistan. The partition was bloody, sparking riots and communal violence across the region.
India and Pakistan have always contested Kashmir, a kingdom with a Muslim-majority, even before both countries gained independence from Britain. But the conflict escalated after a ruler of Kashmir acceded the region to India, which led to a full-blown war between the two countries.
India’s recently conducted airstrikes came as a response to the suicide attack in Kashmir where 40 Indian soldiers were killed. Pakistan downed two Indian jets a day after, as a form of retaliation.
Telecom companies’ dilemma
Large telecom companies are often not willing to divulge information to the government as it may be illegal to intercept private communications, with standards varying from state to state. But telecom companies are often caught sharing their customer record database to the government agencies responsible for security.
This is often a major issue in the United States where major telecom companies can pay a hefty amount of fines for violating privacy rights. But as for the telecom companies in India, privacy rights may not be an issue, especially when most people would agree that they are all doing this for national security.