Telephone tapping is not a new phenomenon. Through the invention of the telephone in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell introduced the technology of voice communication. After that, we did not have to wait long for the state to monitor an individual and violate her privacy. Only 19 years later, in the middle of the last decade of that century, law enforcement agencies in the United States began intercepting telephone calls.
In 1895, phone tapping was started in NYC when one former telephone company employee joined the city’s police department. He advised police officers that it would be much easier to take action against criminals by secretly listening to their phone calls. William L. Strong was the Mayor of New York at the time. At the end of the discussion with the Mayor on eavesdropping, the city police sought his permission for intercepting calls. William L. Strong did not hesitate to allow it.
Thus began the eavesdropping over the telephone. Ordinary citizens at that time did not have any problem with the police eavesdropping on the phone because the phone had not become an essential item of social life. Thus, the process, which began with the then Mayor’s blessing, steadily and secretly only got better over the years.
In those days, the wire-tappers would enter the telephone company’s office to find out the specific person’s telephone connection wire and then carry out their work.
Within the four decades of Bell’s invention of the telephone, the need and use of the phone in social life had increased a lot.The first controversy in the United States over phone eavesdropping began in 1916. At that time, the First World War was going on, and the police administration in New York intercepted thousands of telephone calls at the government’s behest. At the order of the then US President, Woodrow Wilson, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, the US Home Intelligence Agency) started monitoring the anti-war activists, especially the socialists.
Due to this large-scale phone tapping, ordinary people slowly became aware of it. And then there was some uproar. Inevitably it was claimed that telephone tapping violated a citizen’s right to privacy, and a large section of the media was vocal against this act of the police. But in the midst of the war, such protests were suppressed.
Thousands of phones were tapped at the behest of the government. A federal office was set up at the New York Custom House, and from there, the phone tapping was controlled in all areas of the city. Each time a suspect picked up his receiver, an indicator board at the federal office would light up, and a stenographer, wearing headphones, would write down the details of the conversation.
But in the course of time, the telephone companies had to face an uncomfortable situation with their customers. The companies, as a result, refused to cooperate with the police department in tapping calls of the suspected individuals. On the other hand, eavesdropping on the phone using conventional techniques was also becoming increasingly difficult with the spread of the use of the telephone. The police personnel involved in eavesdropping were gradually being caught by the telephone subscribers.
This situation changed a lot with the introduction of a computerised telephone control system. In 1965, Bell Laboratories developed the first computerised telephone control system. This system dramatically improved the field of telecommunication, as well as the state is freed from the old cumbersome method of eavesdropping on the phone.
During World War II, German forces once tried to prevent the interception of some telephones connecting their front-line headquarters in Paris to Hitler’s secret basement. In the late 1940s, the Nazis constantly monitored the voltage of telephone lines to observe a sudden drop or increase in voltage to see if any other wires were connected to their telephone lines for interception of their calls. But the German Nazis could not succeed in that attempt. Robert Keller, Laurent Matheron, and Pierre Guillou, three members of the anti-Nazi resistance front,managed to attach the tapping wire without giving the Nazis a chance to be alert. Sitting in an isolated rented house just outside of Paris, the eavesdropping work was done. Keller’s group was known as “Source K” to Allied military intelligence. On 20th April 1942, Keller listened to Adolf Hitler on his telephone.
Led by Robert Keller, the group of three listened to Hitler’s conversations and with other top figures like Göring (Goering) in the same way. In fact, during World War II, Keller and his associates became known as one of the best spies in occupied Europe. For the benefit of the British and the French detectives, they recorded all official secrets transmitted between Paris and Berlin through underground cable connections. They were captured on 25th December 1942 due to the betrayal of a German agent involved in the French anti-Nazi resistance.
Keller died in a concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen, Germany, on 14th April 1945, after visiting several prisons in France and Germany. One day after his death, on 15th April, the Allied force captured Bergen-Belsen, and the prisoners of the camp were released. Robert Keller’s colleague Laurent Matheron died on 2nd October 1944 in the Dora prison in Germany. Another collaborator, Pierre Guillou, died on 24th January 1944, in the same prison.
After the Second World War, extensive work began in science and technology all over the world. Massive changes took place in the realm of electronic communication. In the late 1950s, the US military developed a network of computers for the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) radar system using the Bell 101 modem. This modem, brought out by AT&T Corporation as a commercial one, could transmit digital data at a speed of 110 bits per second through a regular telephone line.
There has been a vast development of internet communication since the 1960s, telephone technology developments, and the introduction of optic fibre. Mobile phones began to spread in the 1990s. In 2002, only 10% of the world’s population used mobile phones, and by 2005 that percentage had increased to 46%.
At the end of 2019, there were about 546 crore mobile and fixed-line telephone subscribers worldwide. Of these, 77crore & 40 lakhs were fixed-line subscribers, and 468 crore were mobile subscribers.
With the rapid advancement of telecommunication, different governments have also strengthened their electronic monitoring or eavesdropping. Spyware is a modern, sophisticated version of surveillance or eavesdropping. The first recorded use of the word “Spyware” was on 16th October 1995. In a Usenet (a distributed Internet discussion system in which users post e-mail-like messages)article, spyware was used to make fun of Microsoft’s business model. Spyware is primarily software intended for espionage purposes.
In early 2000, Gregor Freund, founder of Zone Labs, used the term in the press release for “ZoneAlarm Personal Firewall”. In late 2000, a parent who used ZoneAlarm warned that Mattel Toy Company’s children’s education software “Reader Rabbit” was secretly returning data to the Mattel company. Since then, the term “spyware” has taken a permanent place in Internet technology.
In our country, too, telephone surveillance or mobile phone internet surveillance is not new. In tandem with other countries in the world, the secret process of eavesdropping and surveillance has been going on in India for decades under the guise of maintaining law and order and suppressing terrorism. The surveillance of government agencies has never stopped, no matter who is in control of the government. A report published in India Today in December 2010 stated, “…….. Officially, the government has acknowledged that in New Delhi, more than 6000 telephones have been tapped. The secret list includes about 400 bureaucrats and military officials, 200 corporate executives, more than 50 top journalists, an equal number of professional intermediaries, a dozen arms dealers, two dozen NGOs and about 100 high society pumps,drug dealers and hawala operators.
“ It is to be noted that the control of the government at that time was in the hands of the Congress-led United Progressive Front or UPA. Home Secretary G.K. Pillai of the same government had asked the government to amend the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, to expand the surveillance network further. Ten central government agencies, National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Enforcement Directorate, Delhi Police, Central Bureau of Investigation, Directorate of Signal Intelligence, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Bureau of Economic Intelligence and Narcotics Control Bureau, are officially permitted to tap phones of citizens.
Thus, according to the rules of the land, eavesdropping or monitoring are recognised and legal for the sake of public welfare and public safety. Now let us look at the names of some of the victims of telephone eavesdropping during the UPA regime. NCP leader Sharad Pawar’s phone was intercepted in April 2010. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh’s phone was tapped in February 2007. In October 2007, Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar was intercepted. CPM leader Prakash Karat was not left out either. In July 2008, his phone was intercepted.
The GSM Monitoring Device was introduced in India in 2005-06 to record mobile phone conversations in the atmosphere at the initiative of then-National Security Adviser MK Narayanan. Without intercepting the system phone number, it intercepts signals between the phone and the tower and records to a hard disk. In the year 2000, the central government was governed by the BJP-led NDA. That government, headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee, enacted the Information Technology Act, 2000.
According to Article 69 of that Act, the Central or State Government can intercept, monitor or destroy any computer information in the interest of India’s sovereignty or integrity, state security, maintaining friendly relations with foreign states, or maintaining law and order.
Returning to power at the centre in 2014, the Narendra Modi-led NDA government has spread surveillance and surveillance in the society based on that law. Pegasus is spyware which is the centre of the recent storm in our country. This is because,as it is now clear, this software has been used to pry into the lives of several leading public personalities, including opposition leaders, journalists, democratic rights activists, intellectuals that fight with spyware.
But the irony of the fact is that today’s opposition parties were in the government in the past. Back then, the secret activities of eavesdropping by the government, resulting in the breaching of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of personal privacy, had continued unabated.The opposition is always at the centre of the ruling party’s surveillance in the name of sovereignty, integrity, security and law and order. It is a universal governing process.