An Indian view on history, current affairs and politics

March 27, 2023

Beware NETRA is looking

Not many know that India’s ambitious National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) has discreetly commenced operations. The idea of setting up an integrated cyber warfare command was mulled post 26/11. One of the findings from review commission cited lack of an integrated command which was exploited by David Headley. Work on NATGRID commenced about 2 years back. The effort was being led by Center for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Bangalore and CERT-In (Computer Emergency Response Team, India). Several scientists from CERT-In, CAIR and technical consultants from private sector have worked on the project for two years to set up the Indian Cyber Warfare Command, called the ‘NETRA’.

National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) CEO Raghu Raman, who has been leading the creation of the ambitious department under the Union Home Ministry, said 21 data sources of various intelligence and enforcement agencies have been brought on board to put together a better picture of an incident which could be used not only to counter an impending threat but also trail suspects.

This system, besides tracking voice traffic from VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) softwares such as GTalk and Skype, will also analyze and collect content based on keywords (eg: nuclear, spy, jehad, attack, blast, bomb) from social networks (eg: google+, Orkut, twitter, Facebook etc), emails, discussion forums, blogs and chats among others. The CEO, who was picked up for the creation of this ambitious project after his stint in the private sector Mahindra group, says NATGRID “has been delayed” in some senses “to make sure that the security protocols of the data sources it is using are very strong.”

“NATGRID is a tool in background. It will be used to assist agencies. It is only a pointer. It is like Google. When you search for anything on Google it points you to go to certain online locations, similarly it (NATGRID) enables an officer to very quickly get a bigger picture view of a situation” said Raman.

Brilliant and smart engineers from India’s top universities and private sector were engaged in setting up of the complex complicated interception and surveillance system. However, a ruling dispensation which never shied away from systematically exploiting India’s institutions for illegal and unconstitutional means does not auger well for NETRA. Suspicions are that the UPA-II government, compelled by its falling political fortunes may use the same system being built for India’s cyber warfare to allegedly snoop on political rivals. Looking at the nexus between businessmen and corrupt politicians, chances are corporates who survive on crony capitalism may use the same system to collect corporate intelligence.

At the hands of UPA government chances are the system may end up being used for purposes entirely different from what it was intended for. Chances are that an influential politician or a rogue officer in the government may sell surveillance information collected by NETRA to make money. NETRA may be an extremely damaging tool at the hands of a corrupt and desperate government lke UPA. One can only speculate how would the current home minister have used NETRA but there is no denying political opponents would have certainly been targeted.