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Hello! Big Brother is listening... and watching!

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Aug 6, 2018, 12:15 am IST
Updated : Aug 6, 2018, 1:16 am IST

There are almost four billion Internet users the world over now.

Mobile telephony gives people reach, spread, speed and above all a greater anonymity.
 Mobile telephony gives people reach, spread, speed and above all a greater anonymity.

For 2018, the number of mobile phone users is forecast to reach 4.77 billion. The number of mobile phone users across the world is expected to pass the five billion mark by 2019. In 2016, an estimated 62.9 per cent of the population worldwide already owned a mobile phone. Of these, India and China alone accounted for about 2.5 billion. The United States followed, with 327 million, and a dysfunctional country like Pakistan had 125 million. Even in countries with little semblance of a government or a state, like Somalia and Afghanistan or Mali or Libya, there are functioning mobile phone networks. There are almost four billion Internet users the world over now. Of these, 44.8 per cent are in Asia, 21.5 per cent in Europe and 11.4 per cent in all of North America. India was one of the last countries operating a telegraph service, and as of this month even that is now in the past. Literally, it’s all up in the air nowadays.

Quite clearly, we are talking and communicating more with each other. Billions of messages flit through the ether each day. That’s why this is called the communications era. People are constantly communicating. This has led to new forms of business and new forms of doing business. And any kind of business. With that small gizmo in your hand, that often nowadays packs more power than a bank of personal computers half a dozen years ago, you can buy an airline ticket in another continent or send flowers to a special friend in yet another one. There can be other less benign uses also. A terrorist can detonate a secreted bomb in a distant country with a mobile phone call. Criminals can orchestrate their activities without moving from their lairs. This new technology has posed many new challenges to the modern nation state, and like before every modern state has to defend itself against some enemy or the other. But states with the technical means and financial resources have, as always, risen to the challenges, and we see this in action in a variety of ways. It also poses new challenges to the law-abiding citizens’ right to privacy.

Let’s discuss this a bit. In the pre-mobile phone era, and that was not very long ago, the state did always try to glean information germane to the well-being of its citizenry through well-known conventional methods. They were easier days, even if they were till into the mid and late 1990s. The numbers of people of interest were few, and they were not so easily concealed. The means of communication were relatively easy to police and there were far fewer of them available. Mobile telephony has changed all that. Cellular phones are now easily available. They no longer tether a person to a place and identity. Mobile telephony gives people reach, spread, speed and above all a greater anonymity.

But since data exchanged on cellular and Internet networks fly through the ether and not as pulses racing through copper wires, they are easier to net by electronic interception. But these nets catch them in huge numbers. Unlike before, when the signals to be intercepted and deciphered were a few, now you have millions to sort out and analyse for content and patterns.

This is where the supercomputers come in. The messages that are netted every moment are run through sieves of sophisticated and complex computer programmes that can simultaneously decode, detect and unravel, and by further analysing the incoming and outgoing patterns of calls and data transfers for the sending and receiving terminals or phones, can with a fair probability of accuracy tell the agency seeking information about what is going on and who is up to what.

The problem is that since this information also goes through the mobile phone network and Internet Service Providers (ISP), and the data actually gets decoded from electronic blips into voice and digital data, the private players too gain access to such information.

A few years ago, we had the case of the infamous Amar Singh CDs which titillated so many with its graphic content and lowbrow conversations featuring the likes of Anil Ambani, Jayaprada, Bipasha Basu and some others. Then we had the episode of the Niira Radia tapes, where we were privy to the machinations of the Tata Group’s corporate lobbyist in the nation’s capital fixing policy, positioning ministers and string-pulling media stars. But more usefully than this, a mobile phone, by the nature of its technology, is also a personalised GPS indicator. It tells them where that phone is at any instant it is on. Al Qaeda terrorist and US citizen Anwar el-Awlaki was blasted by a Hellfire missile fired from a CIA Predator drone flying over Yemen with the coordinates provided by Awlaki’s mobile phone. In another place and time, the satellite phone used by Chechen renegade Maj. Gen. Dzokhar Dudayev gave the Russian Air Force the beacon it was looking for. A Russian missile hit Dudayev with precision accuracy.

Since a mobile phone is usually with you it tells the network (and all other interested parties) where you are or were, and even where you are headed. If you are on a certain street, since it reveals where exactly you are and the direction of your movement, it can tell you where the next pizza place is or where and what is on sale. This is also a breach of privacy, but often useful to you.

Most people do not realise that apart from the SIM card, the location of every mobile phone is also divulged by the unique IMEI number that every handset has. During the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament, the terrorists were switching SIM cards to speak to their handlers in Pakistan, but IMEI identifications nevertheless linked them to the different SIM cards and their location. If you are up to no good, then a switched-on mobile phone is a certain giveaway. That’s what gave away Osama bin Laden in the end. A momentary indiscretion by a trusted courier and bodyguard and a name gleaned from a long-ago waterboarding session was all that it took.

In 2002, interrogators had heard uncorroborated claims about an Al Qaeda courier with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (sometimes referred to as Sheikh Abu Ahmed from Kuwait). One of those claims came from Mohammed al-Qahtani, a detainee interrogated for 48 days continuously between November 23, 2002 and January 11, 2003 in a secret rendition camp in Poland. At some point during this period, al-Qahtani told interrogators about a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was part of the inner circle of Al Qaeda.

In 2004, a prisoner named Hassan Gul claimed that al-Kuwaiti was close to Osama bin Laden as well as Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Mohammed’s successor Abu Faraj al-Libbi. Gul revealed that al-Kuwaiti had not been seen for some time, which led US officials to suspect that he was travelling with bin Laden. In 2007, officials learned al-Kuwaiti’s real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed; he was a Pathan from Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

The CIA meanwhile had details of a box of cheap mobile handsets sold to a man it was watching in Peshawar. These phones then came to be used sometime or the other by Al Qaeda couriers. For most of the time these numbers would remain shut. They would come to life very briefly to pass very terse messages or have very short conversations. In one of these conversations, al-Kuwaiti tells his friend that he is now working with the people he was with before. This was enough of a break for the CIA to put him under full-time physical surveillance. A satellite picked him up in Karachi and tracked him. This led to him and his brother Abrar with their families to that now very famous house in Abbottabad.

Tags: mobile phone, internet