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Bengaluru police used smuggling case as cover to tap phones of 30 public figures: Report

Bengaluru police, under the cover of an investigation into smuggling of red sanders and other cases, illegally tapped the telephones of a number of public figures in the state, the Indian Express reported. This revelation about using legitimate police inquiries as a cover to illegally surveil public figures comes in the wake of a lawsuit by WhatsApp against Israeli spyware company NSO Group in which about 24 Indian human rights activists, journalists and lawyers were targeted with a malicious, surveillance software Pegasus.

Who was affected? As many as 30 phone numbers were targeted. It is unclear if this means that 30 individuals were targeted, or 30 phones that could belong to fewer individuals. Targets included Nirmalananda Swami, a seer of the dominant Vokkaliga community, and at least one candidate in the Lok Sabha polls. It is unclear to which party this candidate belongs.

When were they tapped? Between August 2018 and August 2019, it is believed. The conclusion to the red sanders investigation was announced around the time of Lok Sabha elections in May 2019. The Bengaluru police had announced that it had arrested 13 people and seized 4,000 kg of sandalwood worth ₹4 crore. Illegal phone-tapping continued thereafter using other cases as a cover until the JD(S)-Congress state government, headed by J.D. Kumaraswamy, was usurped by a group of rebelling MPs in July 2019.

How did the police do that? Under the cover of investigation into smuggling of red sanders which lasted several months. While calls of suspects in the smuggling case were intercepted legally, for the surveillance of public figures, their numbers were “slipped in” with those of suspects.

  • The tapped calls were diverted out of the regular phone interception system. Often, such illegally intercepted calls did not arrive at the technical centre of the Bengaluru police, where such tapping is authorised, but on phones outside the system.

Who is investigating the allegations of phone-tapping? CBI. The BS Yediyurappa-led BJP government, which replaced Kumaraswamy’s, handed the case to CBI on August 19.

Whom is CBI investigating? In September 2019, the CBI raided the home and offices of former Bengaluru commissioner, Alok Kumar, under whose tenure much of this illegal interception reportedly occurred. He was brought in as the police commissioner in June 2019. He is currently the additional director general of Karanataka Police. The CBI also got statements from police personnel directly involved in tapping.

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How did the public learn of illegal phone-tapping? In August 2019, several MLAs had accused the former CM Kumaraswamy of illegally tapping their phones. There was also a power tussle between Kumar and his successor, Bhaskar Rao. Rao’s leaked telephone conversations led to a preliminary inquiry which revealed that phones of many politicians, officials and other were illegally tapped.

What is the legal process? Provisions for legal call interception are defined in Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and Rule 419A of the Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Rules, 2007. As per Rule 419A, only the Union Home Secretary or the respective State Home Secretary (for matters of individual states) can permit interception. In “unavoidable circumstances”, an officer authorizsd by the Union Home Secretary or the State Home Secretary, not below the rank of a Joint Secretary, can give such an order. In urgent cases (remote areas, or operational reasons), the head or the second senior most officer at the law enforcement agency, not under the rank of Inspector General, could issue such an order, but Union/State Home Secretary needs to informed within 3 working days and have to be confirmed by them within 7 days.

How did Bengaluru Police work around permissions? For the interception of calls of smuggling suspects, the Bengaluru police approached the State Home Secretary for 60-day clearance, as prescribed by Rule 419A. But for illegal interception, they followed the caveat that allows them 7 days to intercept calls, and get permission at the Bengaluru commissionerate level.

This explainer was prepared using Indian Express’s investigative report into the issue. You can read it here.

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