Fresh arrests in a case relating to Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley's call records being compromised have re-instilled fears on the snooping front. The case highlighted how private detectives were increasingly prying on personal details.
The only difference between these detectives and government sleuths is the issue of legality. Under law, only police or central investigating agencies can seek call details records from telecom service providers by sending an email, a registered post or a policeman personally delivering a written request.
Call data records, or CDRs, refer only to the details of phone numbers to which calls have been made and received, the duration of the calls and the locations from where these have originated.
The content of a conversation or an SMS isn't provided under CDRs. Also, this is different from recording of telephonic conversations, which are done separately and secretly, under the Telegraph Act.
CDRs are obtained under section 91 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which permits a station house officer to seek any detail required for the purpose of investigation. But in a place such as Delhi, officers of the rank of assistant commissioner of police (ACP) are given the authority to seek CDRs.
ACPs are direct supervising officers for the purpose of investigation; some are even nominated as judicial officers. Earlier, ACPs would send emails to telecom service providers to secure call details for suspected terrorists and extremists and those involved in criminal cases. These details can be sought merely on the basis of suspicion, and no justification is either asked or provided for this.
The Private Detective Regulations Bill (2007), introduced in the Rajya Sabha to rein in rogue detectors, is yet to see the light of day. Also, India lacks privacy laws that provide protection against snooping. In the absence of such laws, private detectives have mushroomed in all nooks and corners of the country; while some are fly-by-night operators, some work out of departmental stores.
Conservative figures suggest about 5,000 agencies operate in India. Their business has increased into a couple of thousands of crore, due to unprecedented demand, says a self-claimed ace detective.
Private detectives forge relations with policemen and unsuspecting people in telecom companies, as they have access to call data. "A good detective has good sources in the police and telecom service providers. Call data records are provided for less than Rs 10,000," says the detective mentioned earlier.
Investigations into Jaitley case revealed a group of private detectors had connived with police officers of the rank of assistant sub-inspectors, head constables and constable in the office of the ACP. These rogue policemen illegally sent mails from the ACP's office to service providers, seeking call details of politicians, businessmen and journalists. The scam was uncovered after one of the eight telecom service providers turned suspicious and decided to verify with the ACP concerned. So far, four policemen and a couple of private detectives have been arrested in the case.
"After this incident, Delhi Police has become more cautious. Now, an officer of the rank of Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), the immediate senior of an ACP, is authorised to get call details. The DCP will face serious action for any negligence on his part," said a senior officer. "Now, we have started to minutely monitor such request every month."
As this problem was spread across the country, the Union government had decided to set up a National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid) at an estimated cost of Rs 4,000-5,000 crore. In June 2011, it cleared the controversial project to electronically connect police forces and intelligence agencies with the databases of telecom service providers.
"It would have cut all such possibilities of leaking of call details. But Natgrid is struggling to take off, despite so much money being infused," said a senior government official.