Danger of call records and phone surveillance

Nobody in their village knew of Ram and Priya's secret relationship. Tired of finding a secret place to meet, one day Ram and Priya bought cell phones and signed up from service from Wirelesscorp so that they could stay in touch without having to worry about being discovered. Little did they realize that Priya's brother Karthik, who worked at Wirelesscorp customer care, was spying on her call records. He confronted Priya about her secret affair and forced her to confess. Fortunately, Ram belonged to the same caste as Priya and after a few weeks of argument, Priya's family consented to their marriage.

The above story is fictional, but there are many true stories of how vulnerable our private communications, particularly on cell phones, are to malicious people and overreaching law enforcement alike. Here are two I've heard from friends.

A friend of mine shared an anecdote. He had a friend who suspected that his girlfriend was cheating on him. Hence he asked somebody he knew at a Reliance call center to obtain the call records of his girlfriend who is on the same network. From the call records, he found that his girlfriend was talking to somebody else for long stretches of time. What happened after this is unclear to me, but then it raises the serious question of privacy – your calls are not private. All you need is a contact working at the appropriate telcom provider to get call records.

Another friend of mine shared another form of privacy violation - real time location is easily available if you know the right person in BSNL (and probably in any other telcom too). This friend's circle had a person who had committed some crime. When confronted, he fled to another state. By using someone he knew at BSNL, he was able to get real time location of this person concerned, even though he was from another telcom provider.

Such is the state of privacy on cell phone networks, I shudder to think of the risk to journalists and activists working against powerful corrupt people. It is very easy for people in power to track down, persecute and kill those working to expose them. Or for the state or some majority to suppress dissent.

The above anecdotes show that the cell phone network is very carelessly organized and it is a threat to the privacy of every citizen of India and even government offcials. One might argue that government needs information to prevent terrorism. But how much does this form of surveillance help? The Paris attacks last year showed that even though the terrorists concerned were under watch, French law enforcement couldn't prevent the attack. Also NSA's mass surveillance contributed very little to solve security issues in USA.

So, what can we do to minimize the danger? There's the technical side and the political side. We should avoid centralized databases of information like this. Telephone networks should be decentralized, perhaps by using several different providers or by using VoIP calls with a federation of community run VoIP servers. On the political side, we must push for laws that limit storage of private information rather than the current laws in which governments want telecom providers to store as much information as possible.

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