There are concerns about intelligence agencies in India hiring spyware from foreign firms such as Hacking Team, and that personal details acquired by some states could be used for unscrupulous purposes. Photo: iStock

There are multiple issues at the core of Cambridge Analytica’s presence in India, but a prime concern is foreign influence on domestic politics and the day-to-day life of Indian citizens.

Cambridge Analytica designed tools which helped the powerful acquire and retain power while distracting and keeping the common man ignorant through psychological profiling, all of this just to make money.

Foreign influence in domestic politics is a concern but the lengths that other groups are prepared to go for financial reward is even more troubling. Another foreign firm involved in a similar controversy is Hacking Team, which supplies offensive intrusion and surveillance capabilities to governments, law enforcement agencies and private corporations. It makes a mockery of rights and the concept of democracy by selling spyware to oppressive regimes across the world.

In 2015 an anonymous hacker published a treasure trove of information on how the Hacking Team exploits vulnerabilities in popular software along with 400 gigabytes of email communication that Hacking Team had with clients. These emails provide an inside view of the dark market of surveillance tools and techniques along with key players involved. They provide an insight into how companies can charge up to $1 million for these services per client and are pushing intrusive software into countries which have less accountable governments.

Hacking Team has focused on India since 2011 after it was officially invited by the Government of India through its attache at the Indian Embassy in Italy. The group has had talks with various intelligence agencies and private cybersecurity firms in India trying to sell spyware and surveillance tools. The list of agencies interested in buying their spyware includes the Intelligence Bureau, National Investigation Agency, the Prime Minister’s Office and representatives from various police departments.

While information about Indian authorities engaging Hacking Team is old, the important question to ask now is was this spyware used for political purposes? As it appears that surveillance technologies have been used for settling political scores.

In June 2015 a phone call of Chandrababu Naidu, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, was tapped and leaked to the media, causing heavy political fallout between the newly formed states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Chandrababu Naidu even asked the central government to order a high-profile committee to probe the incident and how a constitutional official such as him can be put under surveillance by the state of Telangana.

Screenshot of geo-tagged houses with information on family members including their deceased from an Andhra Pradesh household survey. Photo: Srinivas Kodali

Within days of the incident being revealed, the Andhra Pradesh Intelligence officials tried to acquire cellular mobile interception tools from Hacking Team through a private firm, Ortus Consulting in Hyderabad, for possible retaliation against political leaders from Telangana. Months later, officials in Telangana raised concerns over a similar incident – how Andhra Pradesh stole data from submissions it made to the World Bank Ease of Doing Business rankings.

Observers say this kind of intrusive snooping or espionage by rival states is going to become common if the national parliament does not address the issue and reform the way that police and intelligence officials function in India.

Many suspect that state and national intelligence officials are likely to use Hacking Team spyware to target citizens of interest or politicians in other parties, partly because there are no safeguards for citizens and blanket exceptions given to intelligence agencies in India.

Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are two states with a higher presence of Information Technology firms and have been advancing the implementation of digital identity program, Aadhaar. They have been building state resident data hubs and 360-degree profiles of citizens on top of Aadhaar, reportedly to combat identity fraud.

Telangana was created in 2014 when the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh was split in two. Both of these states have carried out citizen surveys to collect details of all residents at household level, including details of Aadhaar, PAN (tax department number), Bank Account Number, Voter ID. In fact, Andhra Pradesh went further ahead and carried out electronic Know Your Customer/Citizen (eKYC using Aadhaar) of every resident identifying the dead in the family and geo-tagging every household.

But analysts say the amount of unlawful surveillance being carried out in the name of national security and terrorism needs to be controlled before it turns into a weapon that undermines or even destroys our democracy. So, it is important to set well-defined parameters on surveillance infrastructure set up by various intelligence departments in the country – to prevent the unscrupulous use or exchange of citizens’ personal details.

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