PC's Natgrid is ready to roll, your life will soon be an open book

A necessary evil, govt to aggregate 21 databases to beef up internal security

GN Bureau | February 6, 2010


Home Minister P Chidambaram presenting report card of his ministry earlier in the week. On his side his Home Secretary G K Pillai
Home Minister P Chidambaram presenting report card of his ministry earlier in the week. On his side his Home Secretary G K Pillai

If you have a bank account, an insurance policy, land or house or a telephone connection, the government will soon have all information on you. This is part of a massive plan to network 21 available databases of government and private agencies to because the home ministry thinks that the national identity card (NIC) to every citizen may not be enough to eliminate risks on the internal security front.

In project will be completed in four phases. The cost of the first phase alone is Rs 2816 crore.

In less than two years, these databases will be linked to enable security and intelligence agencies get any information on you at the press of a button under the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), a brainchild of Home Minister P Chidambaram . The plan, which could amount to intrusion of your privacy but is an essential step in an increasingly unsafe world, is awaiting the nod of f the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).

Capt. Raghu Raman (43), took over as the chief executive officer of Natgrid on December 12 on a fixed 18-month tenure with Rs 150,000 salary per month and perks of a secretary to the government. Capt Raman was heading the Mahindra Special Services Group that provides corporate risk mitigation services which he joined after quitting the Indian Army in 1998.

Like the National Identity Card project headed by former Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani, Raghu Raman was specially picked up to head Natgrid to impart professionalism. He brings added advantage of expertise in weapons, armament, missiles and armed warfare and commando operations. He is also trained in hacking and competitive intelligence.

The home ministry recognises  the security versus privacy trade off and promises extreme care in handling the information. The ministry's document before the CCS proposes that the extremely sensitive data will be available to only 11 select government agencies and a special mechanism will prevent any leakage. As such, the raw data will reside with the provider agencies that is readily available at any time while NATGRID will only take abstracted and approved subset of information.

The agencies so far identified for accessing the Natgrid are the Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Military Intelligence, Revenue Intelligence, National Intelligence Agency and National Security Council. Personnel from these agencies will be working in NATGRID for liaison with parent organisations and guide them in usage of the data provided.

The new system is being created basically to help the government agencies combat terrorism and internal security threats by generating "actionable" intelligence through search and retrieval from the databases to be networked. The grid will have a command centre that will work as an anti-terror hotline and will have a trans-national connect to network with data available in other countries that is useful to keep a tab on suspects.

The Home Ministry's proposal before CCS for administrative and financial sanction envisages a total workforce of 290, including 98 outside consultants, tall identified by the CEO. They will link the  various databases in four phases.

The first phase, involving an estimated capital cost of Rs 2816 crore including Rs 22 crore in February and March and another Rs 11 crore as operational expenses, is limited to linking up only the databases that are available with the centre, besides that of one or two state entities as a concurrent pilot project. The first phase is limited to the data already accessible through the current procedures.

All authorised agencies will be linked up among themselves as also with government agencies like Railways, Air India, Income Tax Department and state police and the private agencies like banks, insurance, telecom and SEBI. Sources say a limited analytical capability will begin as the linkings begin in the first phase, though the operationalisation of the intelligence produced will remain the responsibility of the operating units like NSG, Army, Police, etc.

The second phase will enable analytical capability to cross-link different pieces of information and flag "tripwires" that indicate some unlawful or terrorist activity. Phase three onwards, NATGRID will recommend improvements of the databases and development of unconventional but highly valuable data sources like visitor records of jails and sales of materials like fertilisers that can be raw material for improvised explosives.

Private sector firms such as telecom service providers will be mandated to link up their databases with Natgrid. The databases so far identified for being linked in the grid include those of rail and air travel, phone calls, bank accounts, credit card transactions, passport and visa records, PAN cards, land and property records, automobile ownership and driving licences.

With the 11 user agencies and 21 databases identified for networking, Chidambaram is hoping to having a fully operational Natgrid in two years. Though it is envisaged to be implemented in four phases, sources say the grid will start providing relevant information even while integration under these phases is in progress.

After Chidambaram announced the government's decision to create Natgrid last year, some ministries tried to block it on the ground of duplication of work already done by other agencies. One such objection was that the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) functioning under the National Security Adviser (NSA) is already coordinating and collating inputs available with various security and intelligence agencies.

The Home Ministry clarified that NSCS is only a policy making body and may use the databases interlinked by Natgrid while the latter will be actually developing and maintaining grid and associated applications to ensure smooth information search and retrieval over a range of databases with a focus on terrorist activities.

Another attempt to sabotage Natgrid , whose CEO will report to nobody except the home minister and the home secretary, was made by suggesting that it will be duplication of the Hyderabad-based National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) working under NSA. It was set up to augment the technical intelligence capabilities of the country, with huge budget, manpower and technical resources. NTRO was set up for cyber security, crypto systems, strategic hardware and software development, strategic monitoring, data gathering and processing and aviation and remote sensing.

The home ministry shot down the suggestion to bring NTRO, with its technical intelligence capabilities, on the Natgrid board, pointing out that the two agencies have different charter. NTRO's main role is of technical interception whereas Natgrid's role is that of connectivity and retrieveability.

 

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