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Phone Operators Are Really Worried About the Indian Government Asking for Call Records of All Their Users

Telecom operators smell something fishy in this unusual request, which could also flout the 2013 telecom guidelines.
18 March 2020, 9:03am
Phone Operators Are Really Worried About the Indian Government Asking for Call Records of All Their User
Photo by Luis Villasmil / Unsplash

As India hurtles towards setting up an all-encompassing surveillance strategy, raising concerns as well as anxieties about data protection and privacy, a new development has made things even murkier. This time, it’s the government asking mobile phone operators for call data records (CDR) of all users across India. It has also raised questions about what could possibly be a violation of mandates put in place by the Supreme Court.

The CDR of a person includes all the calls-related information, such as the number of calls they’ve made and received, the numbers they’ve dialled or received calls from, and the date, time and duration of all calls. The CDR also includes text messages, both sent and received, but not the content. The location of a person is also recorded. Normally, mobile companies only allow up to a year’s access to the CDR, but in extreme cases, this period of time can be extended.

At the moment, the Indian government has asked the local units of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and telecom operators in Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, to furnish CDR details.

“It has been happening for several months now but during January and February, we started seeing these mass requests,” an anonymous senior executive of a telecom operator told The Indian Express. In fact, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents all major telecom operators, red-flagged these requests in a complaint to the Secretary, Department of Telecommunications on February 12, saying that asking for this data could lead to excessive surveillance.

However, this unusual request by the government has been pulled up, especially as it flouts the stringent rules that were put in place in 2013, after unauthorised access of several politicians’ call records was given to the police. Under the new guidelines issued by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, only an officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above was allowed to ask telecom operators for CDRs.

An example of this request is February, 2020, when the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act were in full fury along with the campaigning for Delhi elections. Around this time, the DoT sought CDRs from the Delhi telecom circle, which has nearly 53 million subscribers.

But this time, the COAI has stressed that the DoT haven’t revealed the purpose behind asking for these CDRs, nor the identity of the subscribers, both of which violates privacy norms. “They are not just asking for one particular person’s data,” a senior telecom industry executive said. “They are saying give us everybody’s data on this day in this region. That is clearly violative of the standard operating procedure. They need a probable cause to tap into someone’s data.”

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