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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

When Mobiles Crack crime


Parimal Peeyush and K.S Narayanan report how the police and criminals play hide and seek with cell phones.
PARIMAL PEEYUSH AND K.S NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: April 28, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Mobile Phones | Cyber crime | Technology | Bharadwaj murder | Ponty chadha | |

Ever since the mobile phone revolution swept across India, cops and sleuths have found the ubiquitous handset and the mobile towers to be a very handy tool in solving crimes of all types.This has been borne out by the manner in which the cops claim to have solved the two recent sensational cases involving liquor baron Ponty Chaddha and real estate tycoon cum erstwhile BSP leader Deepak Bharadwaj. Rapid advances in technology have turned an ordinary mobile phone into a potent tool not only for criminals, but also for law enforcement agencies.

The advent of technology in the past two decades has seen the world, including India, take a giant leap in the way that people communicate and share information. The Information, communication and technology revolution has seen mobile phones evolve from being a mere replacement to desk phones to a sophisticated modus operandi for criminals. Law enforcement agencies, as a result, are today faced with this persistent challenge of keeping pace with technology in order to check crime and maintain law and order.

Take the case of the Bharadwaj murder as an instance. Call records have helped the police establish how the murder plan was hatched and also revealed key conspirators. An analysis of the call detail records of the alleged conspirators in the Bhardwaj murder case point to a plan where the assailants tried to wipe off every trace of their movements. The conspirators communicated only through SMSes and would switch off their phones before heading out to meet either at a parking lot or outside a school in Vasant Kunj, next to the lawyer's residence, to avoid their locations from being tracked, police sources said. Each person in the chain of conspirators was looking out for himself and this precisely was the reason why lawyer Baljeet Singh Sehrawat recorded his conversations with Bhardwaj's younger son Nitesh Bharadwaj, who is the main accused in the case. Sources further revealed how Nitesh, Sehrawat and Swami Pratibhanand exchanged 45 calls till five days before the incident, beginning January 2012. Later, they changed their phones and SIM cards to prevent police from tracking the IMEI number.

Lets look at another high profile case that grabbed headlines in the recent past. Investigators looking into call records of Ponty Chadha and his brother to build the exact sequence of events that led to his and brother Hardeep Chadha's murders revealed that Hardeep had a close relationship with at least two ministers in the Sheila Dikshit cabinet. These ministers - Delhi's Urban Development Minister Arvinder Singh Lovely and power minister Haroon Yusuf - are said to have been in close contact with Hardeep. Lovely reportedly talked to Hardeep and exchanged text messages almost every day. Interestingly, between November 1 and November 17, the day the brothers fought bitterly leading to the final fatal shootout, Lovely and Hardeep talked to each other 59 times.

There is an endless list of how tracking mobile records and surveillance have helped investigators uncover hidden motives and establish crime.

In fact, the first action of the police investigating an unseen crime is to seek phone records from the telecom service provider. The service providers are mandated under law to provide access of call records to law enforcement agencies as and when required. There is a strict protocol that is followed which includes a request being sent by the law enforcement agency to the service provider after it is approved and signed by the Home Secretary. In a conversation with TSI, S N Shrivastava, Special Commissioner of Police, Special Cell, Delhi Police said, “The use of these technical tools is subject to its misuse. The mandate (to facilitate surveillance and tracking) that was given to the mobile service providers was that cell phones were being used for crime.  Mobiles have become a powerful medium of communication between criminals.” He said that when a technology could be misused for destabilising law and order, any society had the right to keep such checks and balances in place. “Any surveillance or tapping that is done is under a law that is approved by Parliament. There are norms laid out that enlist the purposes for which surveillance can be done. These include national security, maintaining national integrity, public order and prevention of crime,” he added.

 “There is a proper protocol in place when law enforcement agencies request operators to monitor somebody. Each request comes to a nodal officer that every operator designates for each circuit. The nodal officer then informs a close group of people who then provide the interface. This comes to our switching centre where the LEAs are already connected. So, whenever we get any request, all we do is route the information. The service provider does not get involved in overhearing, encrypting and decrypting,” Rajan Mathews, Director General of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) told TSI.

While call records and mobile surveillance have come in handy during investigations, there is also a flip side to it. It is not just the police that are getting smarter; with the advent of technology, there have been several instances where law breakers have managed to outsmart law keepers. Even in the case of the Bharadwaj murder, sources reveal that the prime accused Nitesh never communicated with Pratibhanand directly.  Instead, he was in touch with Sehrawat who in turn was in touch with Swami Pratibhanand. Nitesh and Sehrawat spoke only through SMSes and would plan the spot and time for the next meeting. All this was done with the intention of evading investigators.

Speaking to this magazine, Prakash Singh, a former Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh, says that state at the forefront of tracking mobile calls to crack crime. “Many criminal gangs who unleashed terror in their neighbourhoods were eliminated by tracking mobiles. Technology is so sophisticated that one gets to know the exact location of a mobile, he says. However, Singh also cautions that criminals are invariably one step ahead of law enforcement agencies. “The police have to constantly upgrade their technology, coordination and intelligence to make arrest and breakthroughs. It is a useful tool. Nevertheless challenges continue to surmount,” he added. Dinesh Bhatt, a former senior police official currently serving as a member of the Uttarakhand Public Service Commission also believes that keeping abreast with technology is a big challenge. “But the new crop of police officials are doing a wonderful job,” he says, adding, “the young lot that we have today are well-versed with the use of complicated technologies and are committed to cracking crime with its help. It is all about adapting and implementing,” Bhatt says.

But today, checking crime by tracking mobiles is also becoming increasingly difficult. Assistant Commissioner of Police at Delhi Police's Special Cell Manish Chandra says that all criminals today know that the police uses telephone records and locations to nab them. “When a criminal knows how he is going to be caught, he will obviously take precautions for not getting caught. The basic aim is to evade arrest. Moreover, when a criminal is caught and sent to jail, he gets all the training that is required on how not to get caught,” says Chandra. The time spent in jail helps him understand the errors that he could make and once he is out, he is bound never to make those mistakes. “Criminals who are today getting caught with the use of mobile technology are either first timers or with a really low IQ,” Chandra added.

Things, however, were not so difficult earlier. There was a phase when technology was moving ahead and nabbing criminals with the help of telephones. “As on date, you take my word, you cannot catch a criminal only with the use of telephone records,” says Chandra, adding that the most essential and fundamental factor is human intelligence. It could be used later to establish a crime or conspiracy or motive. We are going to see an increase in the reliance upon human intelligence to catch criminals, he says. It can be source-based or through undercover operations of infiltration by the police. “In the past 8 to 10 years, the focus on human intelligence had taken a back seat. We found a tool in mobile technology where we could track, intercept and crack cases sitting in one place. Now, the criminals have overtaken us. More reliance needs to be put upon human intelligence,” Chandra emphasises.

The use of mobile surveillance or tracking during investigation, however, is not new. In fact, it has existed ever since mobile phones arrived in India. For the record, it was a condition for granting telecom licenses in 1995. There is a clear mandate that if a law enforcement agency requests interception of a particular subscriber, the service provider has to comply. Requests are made under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1911. Tracking of suspects has become a normal procedure in the course of investigation today. Be it crime, financial frauds such as the Nigerian 419 scam or tracking of terror outfits and their supporters, mobile tracking is common and has existed since as early as 1995 when the first tranche of telecom licences were given out in India. Since then, the police in various cities have been at it. This, say experts, has given criminals all the more reason to give mobiles a slip.

According to a senior official, all Pakistan-based militant outfits active in Kashmir have switched over from mobile phones and satellite phones, which are easy to track. Now, it is the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) call that is coming very handy for ISI agents and terrorists operating from Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The mushrooming of unregistered VoIP or Internet telephony is becoming a huge security problem as the origin of the caller and time of call cannot be ascertained immediately. Central security agencies have been pressing Department of Telecom (DoT) to ask service providers to come up with a solution for which several rounds of meetings have taken place between the, the DoT and the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO). However, no quick fix solution has been found to block unregistered VoIPs operating from outside the country's borders.

Technological advances have moved from use of telegraph to landline phones. Earlier, we used to have cops listening to tapes. Now the whole operation has become remote where interception is possible even over the Internet. “A majority of the most wanted people have today shifted from cell phones to the Internet,” said a police official who did not wish to be named. That is the big challenge for cops today. In the case of applications, the problem gets bigger. The police's requests for interception are applicable to service providers who are legally bound to give us interception facility. Let’s suppose that there is a subscriber who uses his Airtel, Vodafone or Reliance mobile connection to use the services of an application such as WhatsApp, whose server is located in the US or Holland. Trouble is that the mandate of Indian law enforcement agencies does not apply to applications based in other countries. Also, whatever data they have on their servers is encrypted which is what they send to service providers here in India. So, at the end of the day what the police are left with is encrypted data which cannot be decrypted by anyone else but the master server that is sitting outside India. So, WhatsApp may choose to part with decrypted data, but it is a very lengthy procedure where a letter rogatory has to be issued and the Interpol needs to be approached.

Even gangsters and other criminals in Bihar have shunned mobile phones and emails to run their rackets threaten people and extort money. They are turning to postal letters and couriers as letters help them avoid the police radar while phones are easy to track. It was earlier common in Bihar for criminals to use mobiles to issue threats or demand money from businessmen, traders, doctors, contractors and even legislators and members of parliament. It was also revealed during investigations in few cases that criminals or gangsters lodged in jails across the state are using letters to run their network. The inmates send letters outside the jail through visitors or after bribing the guards. Maoist guerrillas in rural Bihar have been using letters to threaten contractors and traders. Police are probing several cases, including the murder case of Ranvir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh in June last year, where the main accused has been found using letters to communicate with his men.

Its a two-pronged challenge that the law enforcement agencies face. One, in keeping up with technology and the other, in not losing the focus on human intelligence. Someone rightly said that life was much simpler and easier when Apple and Blackberry were just fruits. If you don’t believe it then take a look at this mind boggling figure which is mentioned on the website of Asian School of Cyber Laws.

“Cyber Crime costs the world more than Rs. 57,000,000,000,000 every year. Companies and governments need skilled professionals to contain this US $ 114 billion annual cost”. The digital age no doubt has made communication easier and glocalised the whole world. But on the flip side it has also opened a Pandora’s Box as the digital revolution has also spawned a new breed of techno-savvy e-criminals who find ingenious ways to commit crimes. Mobile phones are not just used as communication devices but as dangerous gadgets to remotely detonate explosives. This new breed of criminals and terrorists has given rise to a new area of investigation called digital forensic investigation. It includes network forensics, forensic data analysis and mobile device forensics. The typical forensic process encompasses the seizure, forensic imaging (acquisition) and analysis of digital media and the production of a report into a piece of collected evidence.

In major crimes mobile phones have come to constitute the single-most important case cracker these days. This is why when there was a serial blast in Pune on August 1, 2012, the Pune police approached mobile companies seeking the details of new numbers or suspicious numbers their towers have captured before and after the blasts. The herculean challenge before the police was to go through millions of numbers and zero in on those used by suspects. This was very important for the police in Pune because the video cameras installed in different parts of the city were dysfunctional.

Not all crimes are terror related. Many of them are crimes committed by techno- savvy criminals using computers and high end cell phones. Broadly these crimes are classified as cyber crime against individuals, cyber crime against property, cyber crime against organization and cyber crime against society. These includes cyber spoofing, spamming, cyber defamation, cyber harassment and stalking, intellectual property crimes, credit card frauds, virus attack, email bombing, salami attacks, data diddling, cyber terrorism and web jacking.

Vishal Kumar, Director (Academics), Asian School of Cyber Laws, which specializes in cyber crime investigation and forensics, feels that dealing with techno-savvy criminals is a challenge for the government, investigating agencies, army and also the corporates. What they need is good training in cyber crime investigation and cyberforensics.

“We have assisted the Indian Army, various branches of the Indian police and the Central Bureau of Investigation in matters relating to cyber investigation,” says Vishal.

However, tracking has its own downsides, as have been displayed in the cases related to the tapping of phones of politicians Amar Singh and Arun Jaitley. Even more notorious and sensational is the Nira Radia tapes case where the Income Tax department was tracking her mobile phone conversations. Someone leaked the tapes and literally all hell broke loose, with the conversations on record exposing the ugly face of crony capitalism in this country. While the police say it was a case of misuse of an id, illegal tapping can be as lethal as any other crime. However, as Special CP, Delhi Police Shrivastava puts it: “Anything that is done illegally, the law will always take its own course.”

Some security officials suggest that mobile numbers be also made identification numbers. “Once registered and verified, it cannot be changed. This will bring down crime by 90 percent people.” It could also reduce dependence on Aadhar or a PAN Card. Some food for thought.

With inputs from Chandran Iyer and Mayank Singh

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017