The Department of Telecom (DoT) has rejected pleas from the Indian Cellular Association (ICA), which represents most mobile handset makers in the country, and stuck to its original deadline of January 1, 2018 for compulsory inclusion of GPS systems in all mobile phones, reports The Economic Times. The report mentions that the government’s argument for upholding the original deadline was the urgent need for safety and security of women and stated that GPS is the primary tool in determining a subscriber’s location in an emergency. The government also categorically stated that it will not entertain any further arguments against this from handset makers.

In April 2016, DoT had made it mandatory for all mobile handsets to have GPS by January 2018, apart from having a physical panic button on each device. Following this, ICA had asked TRAI to recommend to the DoT that GPS should not be mandatory, saying that “the actual cost of implementation of this capability on low-cost feature phones is huge and could actually have catastrophic consequences for the nascent mobile handset manufacturing industry that is just beginning to take shape in India.” And in a letter to Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, ICA had said that a feature phone priced at Rs 500-700 will cost around Rs 950 to Rs 1150 if GPS becomes mandatory.

TRAI and the DoT’s take on GPS and location based servers has been see-sawing for a few years now:

  • In October 2015, TRAI was pushing for making GPS mandatory in handsets, even though the DoT itself had initially rejected this, saying that the impact of such a decision must be studied before taking a call. In fact, at the time DoT had mentioned that many people still use feature phones which usually do not support GPS.
  • While back in 2013, the DoT had asked all telecom operators to install Location Based Servers (LBS) at the earliest to aid location based tracking of calls up to 50 meters in real time. This was after all the telecom companies failed to meet the deadline for installing LBS in 2012 owing to the high cost of installation.

MediaNama’s Take

As we have mentioned before, the government’s mandate to push for GPS on all devices is a little overreaching, especially since it doesn’t address the issue of user privacy, which the Indian government really, really doesn’t take seriously. A sanction to implement GPS on all phones without a proper legislation in place to protect the privacy of citizens, could easily lead to misuse of such a potent technology. Would the Government be allowed to track users without their knowledge? Will it be able to remotely turn GPS on with the justification of national security? Without a proper legal sanction to protect privacy, there are chances that such issues may not be raised with the concerned authority until it is too late.

We also need to keep in mind that while this demand for mandatory GPS is pegged on the idea of panic buttons for women in danger, historically the idea behind improving location accuracy has been for better surveillance. GPS provides for better accuracy of tracking than cell-tower triangulation, although it is costlier. From our 2011 posts: “Among the features being requested, is the ability to plot the information on a map to enable geographical analysis of the calls.” Read: What The Home Ministry’s Communications Monitoring Tender Tells Us

Privacy has been a key policy issue in India for a number of years now, especially after the Government of India said in the Supreme Court that there is no fundamental right to Privacy. The country doesn’t have a privacy law, and is setting up surveillance systems like the Centralized Monitoring System, NETRA, NATGRID (for collecting data from across databases), and linking citizens and databases to Aadhaar.