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The two men behind India's 'secret' surveillance industry

Akshat Kaushal & Surajeet Das Gupta  |  New Delhi 


Praveen Kankariya, an Indore-based computer engineer, or Harish Gupta, who runs a defence technology outfit in Himachal Pradesh, might not immediately ring a bell.

But the the two businessmen have built from the scratch are the ones that play a big role in India’s intelligence network. Kankariya’s ClearTrail and Gupta’s Shoghi Communications have been named as key suppliers of surveillance equipment to the Indian armed forces and intelligence agencies by the ‘Spy Files’ project of whistleblower website WikiLeaks, unravelled by The Hindu just days ago.

Shoghi and ClearTrail figure amongst from 24 other countries named by WikiLeaks as part of a global ‘mass surveillance industry’, developing or selling systems for monitoring computers, mobile phones and emails of unsuspecting masses. Governments, law enforcement agencies and armed forces ostensibly remain chief patrons of what WikiLeaks refers to as the “secret new industry spanning 25 countries…that has boomed since September 11, 2001 and is worth billions of dollars per year”.

When Business Standard put a call to ClearTrail in Indore, the company insisted on returning the call to check our reporters’ antecedents. Initially, company executives even refused to share information on who headed the company. But once the company ensured the call indeed was from a bonafide newspaper, it loosened a bit. Shoghi’s promoter Gupta was not contactable on phone and did not reply to an email query. However, Business Standard pieced together a profile based on companies’ websites and information from bonafide public documents, besides speaking to the company’s executive in the case of ClearTrail.

So, who are the men behind this “secret new industry” in India? Kankariya, who belongs to a business family, is considered a guru on “legal interception”. He has been lecturing on the subject in various international forums from Dubai to Singapore. The boy from Indore has also been active in attracting investments into his state, with his flagship company, Impetus, signing a memorandum of understanding at Madhya Pradesh’s Global Investors Summit in 2007 to bring in Rs 200 crore of new projects.

After a post-graduation in computer science from the Michigan State University, followed by a stint with few American companies, Kankariya was back in India in 1991. The idea for his first venture, NewsServer, interestingly came after visiting the office of daily newspaper Free Press Journal. Surprised to see an old teleprinter machines still at work, Kankariya hit on the idea of selling the newspaper industry a personal computer-based bundled hardware and software product. He sold 200 of these, and as they say, there was no looking back for this tech entrepreneur thereafter. Impetus is now headquartered in the Cupertino, United States and specialises in outsourced product development, design and R&D for global software

However, it was in 2004 that Kankariya and his associates decided to set up ClearTrail in order to concentrate on the emerging opportunity for surveillance equipment and technology in India.

The company has over 25-30 shareholders, many also double up as employees including Kankariya, who is one of the largest shareholders and the company chairman.

Sanjeeb Aggarwal, vice-president (operations), ClearTrail, told Business Standard that the company specialises in developing software known as “Data Traffic Inspect Engine”, which is used for analysis of mobile networks. “The demand for surveillance equipment has been increasing over the years and to tap it, we decided to set up a separate company,” said Aggarwal. Coming clear on the company’s client base, Aggarwal said the company sells its equipment only to the government and not to private sector players. He also shared that Kankariya was currently out of the country.

Shoghi Communications, the other Indian name in the Spy Files report, sells everything from passive GSM monitoring equipment, decrypters, satellite monitoring, mobile backhaul monitoring and even radio monitoring technology for its clients. That apart, Shoghi also provides electronic warfare technology, which includes jammers, systems for airborne and ground platforms amongst others. But in case you need to know more, you have to register on the company’s website by giving your details and only after scrutiny will you be allowed deeper access of the equipment. The website also makes it clear that they only sell to the government and not to the private sector.

Gupta and his company are also frequent visitors to major defence exhibitions around the world, like the Africa Aerospace & Defense show in Centurion in Pretoria or the King Abdullah Airbase show in Amman in Jordan. Interestingly, Gupta has developed an online hotel reservation system for the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation. In 2007, Gupta also started marketing agri products of Himachal Pradesh in different parts on India and abroad. According to a Delhi High Court document, Gupta has been under scrutiny. In 2005, the Director General of Military Intelligence issued an order stating that on the advice from the National Security Council Secretariat, it would be desirable to avoid any contact with Shogi Communications Ltd and Harish Gupta. Gupta had challenged the decision in the courts.

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First Published: Sat, December 03 2011. 00:39 IST