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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

Who decides whose phone is to be tapped?

Over the last fortnight, the press has once again focused on the secret state. A series of articles in The Indian Express by Ritu Sarin has revealed that foreign mail is screened by the Intelligence Bureau. And in The Statesman, Swati Chaturvedi has explained how IB is now forcing the cellular operators to let it tap mobile phones.

Over a decade ago, Prabhu Chawla revealed in India Today how IB officials were placed in all key post offices to keep tabs on domestic mail. And Arun Shourie printed the draft of a Postal Bill prepared by the home ministry that gave the government the authority to open our letters.

Nor is it any secret that telephones are routinely tapped in our country. All international calls are subject to some kind of screening and thousands of domestic lines have been placed under surveillance all over India. Most deluxe hotels provide IB with facilities to tap guest telephones; some even allow the Bureau to place listening devices in bedrooms.

Ritu Sarin's story in the Express did set off a parliamentary storm. But if precedent is anything to go by, the outrage will fade, the storm will pass and the spooks will go back to tapping as usual.

It is not my case that no government should ever tap any telephone or intercept any letters. No do I claim that we are the only democratic country that allows surveillance of its citizens. The Federal Bureau of Intelligence taps telephones in America. And Britain's M15 (on which our own IB is loosely patterned) not only opens letters but has also made clandestine arrangements with such hotels as the Claridges in London to tap switchboard lines.

Moreover, there are times when surveillance can help fight crime. Babloo Srivastava, the notorious criminal, used a cellular phone to organise kidnappings and run an extortion racket from Tihar Jail. It was only after the police tapped his accomplice's phone that they realised that Babloo had a cellular and confiscated the phone, putting an end to his rackets.

There are also national security considerations. Both IB and the Research and Analysis Wing use intercepts to catch spies. In fact, RAW's big success story in the 1970s was when it was able to tap Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's phone in Islamabad. (But it was a typical Indian success story: They could only tap Bhutto's side of the conversation and had to guess what the other party was saying.)

I suspect that most of us accept that however undesirable it may be, a certain level of invasion of privacy is probably inevitable. That is why storms over telephone tapping or screening of mail usually die down after a few weeks. We don't like it but we reluctantly conclude that it is necessary.

Unfortunately, we do not ask the right questions. Even if surveillance is inevitable, who decides whose phone is going to be tapped and why? What counts as enough justification for this invasion of privacy? And who monitors the system to ensure that it works fairly?

It is sad that we don't ask these questions. Because the men who tap our phones have no good answers.

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