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October 7, 1997


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Corporates Beware! Your phones might be tapped

Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Bombay

"It is almost certain that Nusli Wadia's private telephone is fixed to prevent tapping. His conversations were tapped because the call came through the telephone operator on a general line. And since an operator telephone has 30 extensions, instruments to avoid tapping must obviously have been missing."

So says a knowledgable private detective in Bombay in the wake of The Indian Express publishing transcripts of telephone conversations of prominent businessmen like Bombay Dyeing chairman Nusli Wadia, Mahindra and Mahindra chairman Keshub Mahindra, J K Helene Curtis chairman and MP Jayant Malhoutra, and Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata.

The detective agencies have a message for corporates: Keep your mouth shut and don't reveal secrets over the telephone.

Says a private detective on condition of anonymity, "Nusli Wadia should have realised that he is the owner of a Rs 20-billion company and should not have behaved so irresponsibly by talking about the Tata executive." He was referring to Wadia's statement to Mahindra that Tata Tea manager Brojen Gogoi, wanted by the Assam police for his alleged links with ULFA, was staying at the Tata guesthouse in Calcutta while presumed abroad.

In an interview to Star News on Tuesday night, Wadia said three of his phones were under surveillance and that could only have been done "with a motive." The Bombay Dyeing chairman hinted that corporate rivalry was behind the publication of the transcripts. A charge that is backed by wellknown lawyer and former Union law minister Ram Jethmalani.

In another interview to Star News, Jethmalani said the transcripts were published as a consequence of the recent upheaval in the Indian Hotels group, so that R K Krishna Kumar -- who is also managing director, Tata Tea -- could not be formally anointed MD at the company's annual general meeting on Friday, October 10. "They wanted him arrested before that date," Jethmalani charged. However, Ajit Kerkar, the deposed chairman and MD of the Indian Hotels group, has denied the charge that he was involved in the controversy.

Though phone-tapping is an offence under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, it is very easy for anyone to tap the telephone as it does not require much skill, detectives say.

Littlemore Services Pvt Ltd Managing Director Henry Bawa -- one of India's bestknown private eyes -- told Rediff On The NeT, "If you pay the linesman who is sitting near the telephone exchange a little money, he can arrange a parallel connection and you can easily tap the conversation. So corporates must take precautions."

Besides the above mentioned method, another way to eavesdrop upon a telephone conversation is to place a transmitter -- whose size is one-fourth the size of a matchbox -- between the telephone exchange and the instrument.

Officially, only the Union home secretary can order a telephone tapping, and the police are allowed to tap telephones of a person receiving threatening calls. Tapping has to be done with the assistance of the telecommunications department.

Methods to prevent tapping involve the use of debugging instrument and scramblers. "Indians tend to use debugging instruments, while abroad scramblers are usually utilised," says Globe Detective Agency Managing Director Vivek Kumar.

Interestingly, despite the growth of industry and tie-up with foreign collaborators, detective agencies have seen little growth in the country.

"Though there are many detective agencies in India, the total turnover of this industry is not more than Rs 300 million," says Kumar. "Corporates still do not understand the importance of secrecy in business and are unwilling to pay the right amount to protect their business secrets."

This is evident from the fact that though scramblers are superior to debugging instruments to prevent phone tapping, its price keeps corporates away.

Telephone scramblers can be used with telephones as well as with stationery and portable radio telephone system. A scrambler codes the words, making them unrecognisable to an eavesdropper, and decodes them at the other end.

There has been much ruckus about the agency which tapped Wadia's telephone. With the Union government denying its involvement, suspicion abounds that it could have been the handiwork of a private agency.

In India, anyone can set up a detective agency by just putting up a board. And unlike the West, in India, detective agencies operate independently of the local police.

"This is a problem. When people do not have licences, they do cheap kind of spying like this one. I am sure no reputed detective agency would have done such a thing," says Vivek Kumar, defending his colleagues.

Ram Jethmalani flays Assam CM for hounding Tatas

The Tempest Rages On: Govt orders probe into phone tapping
Tatas refuse to comment
Who's who in the imbroglio
Assam govt expresses concern
Assam govt alleges Tata Tea had tacit deal with ULFA
Mahanta vows tough action against cos backing ULFA
Gujral did not meet Ratan Tata; Dogra remanded to 14 days judicial custody
Assam police arrest Tata Tea GM Dogra for nexus with ULFA
Union home ministry denies interfering in Tata Tea case
Tata Tea denies charges of nexus with ULFA
Tata Tea officials probed on alleged nexus with ULFA

The Lost Children Of India

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