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Terrorists one-up on tech since security spend is negligible

December 01, 2008 10:08 IST

Terrorist attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and consistently exploiting India's gaping security loopholes -- both on terra firma and in cyberspace. Yet, India's seriousness about electronic surveillance as a preventive measure appears to be woefully inadequate.

AK-47s and M-series weapons apart, the attack on India's financial capital Mumbai reveals that militants are now not only using emails and exploiting wireless technologies but also using satellite phones (satphones) and Global Positioning System (GPS) maps to chart entry and escape routes.

The fishing trawler Kuber that the Indian Coast Guard officials intercepted from Porbandar in Gujarat was found with a satphone and a GPS map of south Mumbai. A satphone was also recovered from two dead terrorists.

All of this makes tracking difficult by authorities. Consider also that there are over 200,000 wi-fi hotspots in India, and many colleges, hotels, cafeterias, shopping malls have Wi-Fi connections that can be easily compromised.

Satellite imagery can be used for useful tasks like identifying new unlicensed constructions or to calculate the damage from natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. Terrorists, though, have other things in mind. In Iraq, for example, detailed Google Earth images of British military bases were found in the homes of insurgents. And two years ago, insurgents there circulated an instructional video on how to aim rockets at US military sites using Google Earth. Of course, you can get the same information by simply walking around with a map and GPS device, security experts noted.

India lags the terrorists in a lot of basic detection technology. Robot drones, mine detectors and sensing devices are already common on battlefields abroad. But security experts and vendors say the Indian government still considers these "wasteful expenditure".

Consider this. A source close to the development pointed out that terrorists responsible for the Ahmedabad blasts in July this year operated from Mumbai and entered the city through Talasari and Vashi in Maharashtra, which actually have closed circuit TVs (CCTVs).

Footage of the terrorists, however, could not be captured on the cameras. That's because these cameras were sponsored by the traders and installed by local vendors (not experts) at heights far too high to catch such footage. The real intent of the traders, said the source, was to record pilferage of grain from the trucks rather than track terrorist activity.

Following the Ahmedabad blasts, there was a proposal to set up surveillance equipment (including CCTVs, analytics and licence-plate tracking software, and metal detectors) at five major entry points in Mumbai -- Dahisar, Vashi, Airoli and two points in Mulund. The scheme, which would have cost just Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million), is yet to receive approval.

A proposal to install CCTVs in Pune, too, has been gathering dust for the last two years. The security department has been demanding mechanised pole barriers at entry points to civic building in Pune to keep a check on vehicles. This, too, is yet to see the light of day.

Moreover, hotels in India simply check cars and handbags and sometimes physically frisk guests at entry points after disasters but these efforts peter out some days later. Most hotels, including the ill-fated Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and Trident hotels, do not have X-ray machines to screen baggage, noted Pramoud Rao, President, Fire and Safety Association of India (FSAI) which has 350 security firms as members. X-Ray machines are considered unsightly contraptions at entry points that could annoy guests.

In the three days of terror that paralysed Mumbai, few people have failed to notice that the US has suffered no more terror attacks after 9/11 whereas India has suffered attack after attack.

"Why not imitate the American experience of technology surveillance?" security expert and Ficci security committee head Vijay Mukhi suggested. The US, UK and Israeli governments, for instance, use satellite images to track terrorist base camps and GPS to track criminals. Software programs are now available to help investigators identify and establish relationships in the stored information of criminals.

To its credit, Mumbai does have CCTVs and metal detectors. Security firms like Zicom, Honeywell, Siemens and Godrej have installed surveillance equipment to cover the city with virtual eyes and record images round the clock. The entire 30 km stretch from CST station (formerly Victoria Terminus) to Thane has CCTVs -- which enabled the authorities to obtain footage of the terrorists who struck at CST on November 26.

Railway stations from Churchgate to Virar (around 60 km), too, have 820 CCTVs. Zicom has installed around 100 CCTVs at all traffic signals in Mumbai (cost: around Rs 4 crore -- Rs 40 million). Famous temples like Siddhivinayak in Dadar have these cameras too.

So do cities like Surat (around 32 CCTVs) and the entire Kolkata metro (around 100 CCTVs which cost Rs 2.5 crore -- Rs 25 million). Cochin Port Trust has acquired two modern high-speed boats from the US to patrol the backwaters and the port-occupied areas during the Indian stopover of the Volvo Ocean Race.

All this equipment, however, falls way short of securing cities. "Securing a city, including sensitive places like archeological monuments, temples, water reservoirs and power plants, needs technology but also tremendous political will and mindset," said Rao of FSAI.

Certainly, there is a wide range of technology and equipment from virtual security barriers, detection technologies (video motion detection algorithms, radars, motion sensors, vibration sensors and geophones), access control systems (biometric-card based) and personal and visitor screening (X-ray technologies, explosive trace detectors and metal detectors).

Internationally, agents along the Canada and Mexico borders are using a machine that can "read" the personal information contained in some government-issued identity cards as travellers approach a checkpoint. 

India, on its part, has the big advantage of learning from other countries. But it needs to do so fast.

Indigenous 'Mole' gains foreign acceptance but not at home

Hi-tech Robotic Systemz (HRS) -- part of the auto-component manufacturing Hi-tech Group -- is in advanced talks with the US and European defence establishments to supply robots that can battle terrorists. The indigenously-developed robot christened 'The Mole' is equipped with heat-seeking sensors, cameras and motors.

"When deployed in a conflict area, it can detect the presence of enemy combatants, like terrorists holding people hostage -- and transmit pictures of enemies and maps of rooms real-time -- to a receiver placed far away from the battle zone. This can help security forces get an idea of the danger inside without risking the life of a commando," said Anuj Kapuria, Director, HRS.

The response from domestic agencies like the DRDO, however, has been lukewarm, he rued.

Advanced versions of "The Mole" can also carry small payloads of explosives inside a targeted danger zone and made to explode. The cost of "The Mole" is pegged at less than Rs 5 lakh (Rs 500,000); a similar robot could cost twice the amount in the US.

HRS has also developed a second advanced robot called VIR (Vigilance Robot) which includes a firearm that can be remotely handled by security agencies to shoot select targets. The VIR costs around Rs 2.5 million. -- Daniel Gideon Goodman
Leslie D'Monte in New Delhi