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After BlackBerry, govt now wants to snoop into 3G from BSNL,MTNL
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Interception does not end with the BlackBerry. The department of telecommunications (DoT) has directed state-owned telcos BSNL and MTNL to provide lawful interception mechanisms for 3G voice & data on their networks to intelligence agencies in 15 days. Such listening mechanisms are already in place for 2G mobile telecom services.

In a strongly-worded letter, DoT demanded compliance reports from both companies after meeting law enforcement agencies' requirements. The letter quotes intelligence agencies as saying that the two companies started 3G services without first demonstrating lawful interception mechanisms to them.

BSNL and MTNL have earlier claimed that they have the mechanism in place and have made the demonstrations to the intelligence agencies; according to the DoT letter, however intelligence agencies have disputed this claim.

BSNL and MTNL, among other telecom operators, also offer BlackBerry services in India.

Meanwhile, in a hardening of stance, the home ministry rejected the partial solution offered by Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian manufacturer and patent holder of BlackBerry services, as it fails to provide data on a real-time basis. Officials said that RIM would have to come up with a mechanism to track all data passing through BlackBerry smartphones on a real-time basis.

The issue of lawfully intercepting 3G data had first surfaced when BSNL and MTNL launched 3G services in March 2009. While MTNL's services are available in Delhi and Mumbai, BSNL covers the rest of the country. Then too, DoT had asked both firms to stop the services in the absence of lawful interception mechanisms and satisfy the security agencies first.

However, BSNL and MTNL had contended that the 3G network is capable of intercepting calls and that it was the responsibility of the security agencies to provide compatible equipment at the premises of the service providers with the cost being borne by the operators.

BSNL and MTNL now find themselves sharing the same spot occupied by RIM. In 2008, the home ministry had detected that BlackBerry services did not provide lawful interception mechanisms, shutting off intelligence agencies from data traffic on BlackBerries. After a series of meetings across several months between representatives of RIM, mobile operators and DoT, the government said that issues were addressed. However, with the home ministry recently stepping up the vigil, it was found that RIM has still not provided the mechanism. In a partial solution, it offered to provide the PIN and IMEI numbers of individual BlackBerry phones and IP addresses of BlackBerry enterprise servers from where intelligence agencies could collect the data.

With the home ministry taking a long, hard look at the security-related aspects of the telecom sector, several pain points have started emerging in the industry. Recently, the government came out with a set of guidelines for importing telecom equipment, where manufacturers have to submit their software codes in an escrow account, which can be accessed by the government if malware was suspected.

Recently, it came to light that many mobile phones without IMEI numbers are still in circulation in India, despite a ban on such handsets. IMEI number is a unique 15-digit number of mobile handsets, which helps the agencies track down specific users. The ban had taken effect in November, 2009, when around 25 million subscribers were using handsets without IMEI numbers.
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