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How to tell if your phone is being tapped

November 29, 2010 10:03 IST
Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata group, plans to move the Supreme Court against publication of conversations he had with Niira Radia, the corporate lobbyist.

The recent publication of transcripts of conversations intercepted by the security agencies between Radia and well-known businessmen like Tata, editors and politicians has blown the lid off tapping phones in India.

Rediff.com's Vicky Nanjappa reveals how you can know if your phone is being tapped.

Nearly 6,000 phones are being tapped in India every day. That may not sound much in a nation of over a billion people and nearly half as many telephones, but tapping phones is a serious violation of an Indian's civil liberties.

The Supreme Court in the People's Union for Civil Liberties vs Union of India case held that a telephone conversation in private without interference would come under the purview of the Right to Privacy as specified by the Constitution.

Sources in the Intelligence Bureau, India's domestic intelligence gathering agency, insist tapping phones is essential in cases involving national security.

Invoking national security is one reason to tap phones, but governments in power also like to keep tabs on politicians and other Indians, who they believe influence the course of current public life.

This, the Supreme Court ruled in the PUCL case, is illegal.

The Court observed that such activities would fall under the purview of unlawful means and would be construed as an invasion into the privacy of an individual.

What can a citizen do if her/his phone is being tapped?

S/he has the right to lodge a complaint at the local police station. This complaint would be subject to an investigation before action can be initiated against the indviduals tapping phones illegally.

However before an Indian files a complaint, s/he will need to know whether her/his phone is being tapped or not.

Ways in which a citizen could discover this:

Landlines

A device called a phone tapping detector could determine if your landline is being tapped or not.

This device can be connected to the telephone and will alert users with a blinking light if the phone is being tapped.

Such a device, which costs around Rs 1,200, is not easily available in India, hence one would have to rely on manual means to determine if the phone is being tapped.

During a conversation if you hear a tone which keeps breaking or has short beeps, this could mean that the phone is being tapped. However one must not confuse it with a long steady tone.

In addition to this, there could be some disturbances which may sound like a radio frequency.

Although in most cases this is just a case of bad reception, it is also an indicator that the phone is being tapped.

Mobile phones

Tapping cell phones is currently more common compared to tapping landline phone numbers. Most of the conversations these days are conducted on cell phones. Hence, 80 percent of the calls being tapped are from cellphones.

If you believe that your phone is being tapped, then during a conversation listen carefully whether the volume of the phone is affected.

There could be short beeps too, which indicate that the phone is being tapped.

Another thing to do is watch the cell phone when it is not in use. It could emit strange sounds when kept aside. It mean that someone is trying to pick up transmissions, a clear indication that the phone is being tapped.

Not only this, such noises would also mean that your cell phone is acting as a transmitter to pick up conversations from phones around you.

There are other symptoms too. The battery of your cell phone could be draining out faster than normal.

Apart from the normal battery problem this could also indicate that your phone is working as a transmitter which is contributing to the battery drain.

Also, if the phone feels warm despite not being in use, then again it would mean it is sending out a transmission in order to tap a phone near you.

There are legal remedies available in case you feel that your phone is being illegally tapped.

A complaint can be lodged with the police and in case the police fails to act, a petition can always be filed in court alleging invasion of privacy as mandated in the Constitution of India.

What the Supreme Court said:

The home secretary of India or the state government has to issue an order authorising that a phone can be tapped.

However, the decision to tap a phone has to be reviewed by the Cabinet secretary, law secretary and telecommunication secretary.

Such an order needs to be reviewed in two months failing which fresh orders need to be passed, which can be valid up to six months. Strong reasons have to be specified in order to issue such a directive.

Records relating to phone tapping should be used and destroyed within two months.

The order, which will be passed by the home secretary, shall be specific in nature.

The invasion of privacy shall be minimum in nature and the reasons should be strong before an order is passed failing which such an order can be subject to a court review.

ALSO READ: Phone tapping: What 1997 Supreme Court verdict says

Vicky Nanjappa