The terrorist assault on Mumbai has brought to focus the need for a policy on monitoring and intercepting satellite phone communications in the country. Now, satellite phones, unlike mobiles, cannot be intercepted by the security agencies, as none of the international operators have a hub in India. Since these phones, provided by operators like UAE's Thuraya and a consortium-led by Inmarsat, do not need interconnectivity with the network of any country's domestic network, it can be used anywhere in the world seamlessly.
It has been reported that the terrorists involved in the Mumbai attacks were using satellite phones.
Officials in the department of telecommunications told FE that such phones can be intercepted only by soliciting the cooperation of the country where it is licensed or by contacting the concerned operator, both of which are time-consuming and often ineffective.
The problems of interception and the absence of hubs come because India does not provide licences for operating satellite phones on a commercial basis. Inmarsat's satellite phones are available through Tata Communications (formerly VSNL) but it is sold only to security and government agencies. Even state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) provides a variant of the phone, called digital satellite public telephone (DSPT), but is installed only as village public telephones.
Industry sources said Inmarsat phones sold by the Tatas are bigger in size and cost around Rs 1 lakh. The widely popular satellite phone is the one provided by Thuraya, which is a relatively small, hand-held device costing around Rs 50,000. Industry sources said it does not make sense for any operator, which is not allowed to provide the satellite phone services in the country, to set up a hub here. DoT officials said they are examining ways of intercepting and monitoring satellite phone communications.
One option is to empower the proposed National Surveillance Grid to research on crime and terrorism. But it requires sophisticated investigative and intelligence techniques to monitor all traffic types-satellite, wireline, wireless, Internet, e-mail and voice over Internet protocol. Another way could be for the surveillance grid to study the methods developed nations use to intercept satellite communications, officials said.
The government proposes to set up a National Surveillance Grid on a public-private partnership basis to create a centralised communication monitoring agency. There is much duplication of surveillance now, with different law enforcement agencies having their own processes and limitation to share the information with other authorities.