While the ministry provided information on a query on phone tapping five years ago, it refused to disclose facts when an application seeking the same information was filed last month.
The Ministry of Home Affairs seems to have its own whimsical norms on applications seeking information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. While the ministry provided information about a query on phone tapping five years ago, it refused to disclose facts when an application seeking the same information was filed by this correspondent last month.
“… documents/ information related to lawful interception are classified as ‘Top Secret’ and cannot be disclosed as it is exempted from disclosure under Section 8(1)(a), 8(1)(g) and 8(1)(h) of the Right to Information Act 2005,” read a reply from the ministry’s director Mukesh Mangal.
In 2011, the ministry had replied saying that the Centre issued an average of 7,500-9,000 orders for intercepting telephone calls every month. Besides being unsure of such queries, the ministry also appears to discriminate between a member of parliament (MP) and a journalist when giving information under the RTI Act.
In 2007, then Rajya Sabha MP Arun Jaitley had filed an application under the Act seeking information on the same topic. The ministry’s reply, which was published in the Indian Express, said that over 4,000 phones were brought under the scanner every month. The reply given in 2011 indicates that the number of telephones under the scanner had almost doubled in a span of seven years.
But why has the ministry refused to disclose information on phone tapping now?
“There has been an overall squeeze on information since the past two years. Officials in certain ministries like home, defence and external affairs are extra cautious while dealing with journalists and replying to RTI applications,” said a reliable source in the government and added that “it was better to be reprimanded by the Central Information Commission for not giving information than be penalised for revealing information that could put the government in a tight spot.”
Phone tapping is allowed under Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act, but only in ‘public emergency, or in the interest of public safety’. Central agencies such as the Intelligence Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, CBI, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Economic Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau and the state police are authorised to tap phones after seeking approval of the union and state home secretaries.
All cellular service providers are required to have aggregation stations that consist of servers called mediation servers and their task is to mediate between the cellular operations and law enforcement agencies whenever interception of phones is required.
Interception is done either through the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) or the leased line. In case of the ISDN, a mediation server intercepts a call and then transmits it to the office of the government agency. Sometimes, the same phone is intercepted by several agencies and the conversation is recorded in files attached to computers and mediation servers.
Phone tapping by government agencies has fuelled controversies at regular intervals. While responding to a petition filed by Justice Rajinder Sachar in 1997, the Supreme Court laid down five preconditions for intercepting conversations – in the interests of national sovereignty and integrity, state security, friendly relations with foreign states, public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of an offence.
The home ministry’s flip-flop on RTI applications does not however stop at inconsistent replies. This correspondent had also asked for information on the number of incursions by the Chinese army into Indian territory in the last ten years.
Usually, it is a norm for a government department or ministry to reply in the same language of the application, which could be in English or Hindi. While the application was in English, the reply saying that information could not be disclosed, was in Hindi. And to cap it all, the reply was not sent to the correspondent but to his father whose name was mentioned in the postal address.