If we go by how it is shown in the movies, a stereotypical phone-tapping process goes something like this: an intense looking hacker – or a tech-wizard – is shown sitting amidst what appear to be high-end computers and monitor screens, which for some reason seem still to have green lettering against a black background, with a series of numbers flashing past and wildly fluctuating frequency charts. In the early days, it used to be about tracing a call, which invariably resulted in some chatter about getting the caller – who could be miles or a continent away – to somehow stay on the line for at least 30 seconds. Nowadays, it's about tapping, but with the same level of frenetic and fancy keyboard skills that often involves repeatedly pressing the same key, accompanied by intense facial twitching and some sweat shown to be literally trickling down the hacker's brow. Success is usually achieved just at the crucial moment, with much spontaneous and collective celebration, and the good guys are almost immediately able to overhear and record the shenanigans being planned by the baddies and manage to remain one step ahead.

But reality is far less dramatic – and far more prosaic.

On Friday, the Indian Express reported that corporate giant Essar had allegedly tapped the telephones of eminent personalities, politicians including including industrialists Mukesh and Anil Ambani of Reliance, former Prime Minister's Office officials Brajesh Mishra and NK Singh and politicians like Piyush Goyal and Pramod Mahajan, between 2001 and 2006. Newsmagazine Outlook, on the other hand, said the tapping took place over an 11-year period from 2000.

Regardless of the period, the controversy one again raises multiple questions about the legality and methodology of phone tapping, apart from other very serious and grave issues.

While The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 makes it illegal to spy on phone conversations except if done in "unavoidable circumstances" by the government, a 2014, a report released by Software Freedom and Law Centre said that the Indian government gives about 9,000 orders to tap phones each month. It added that Indian citizens are “routinely and discreetly” subjected to government surveillance.

What makes the act even more serious is that in this case the alleged tapping of phones was said to have been done by a private company. Some 20-odd conversations out of these were brought to the attention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi by Supreme Court lawyer Suren Uppal acting on behalf of an Essar whistle-blower, Albasit Khan, earlier this month, according to the Outlook story, which describes the methodology employed as “triangular interception”, involving special SIM cards created specifically for this purpose.

Software and smartphones

Considering that the tapping under question is said to have started some 16 years back, technology has changed quite a bit since then. From private detectives to computer hackers, many in the open market now claim to offer surveillance services ranging from tapping phones to even WhatsApp conversations. These services are sold on the pretext of helping parents keep a tab on their children.

In 2013, a private detective and a software developer were sent to jail in Bengaluru for spying on hundreds of people around the city by installing a software on their phones. These phones were then relaying personal information as well as calls and messages back to their servers. According to a report in the Hindu, their clients were largely businesses involved in rivalry with other firms or people with domestic disputes.

A report in the Mint detailed various ways in which similar software were allegedly used by the Delhi Police in 2013 to intercept messages sent through WhatsApp and BlackBerry Messenger on 70 phones. These phones were put under surveillance as part of an investigation into the spot-fixing scandal in the Indian Premier League.

While software like these have been around for years now, the proliferation of smartphones has made it even easier. A report in the Times of India said that many new devices have appeared on the horizon which make spying on phone calls even easier and manage to keep the telecom companies out of the loop. The report says that a company called Trident Infosol provided a 14-page brochure to law enforcement agencies in the country listing eight different gadgets which can be used to tap phones and emails.

There are also apps available online on a payment ranging from Rs 2,000 to Rs 20,000 which just need to be installed in a phone that one wants to tap. From there, it’s as easy as logging into a website to access all recorded data in realtime.

The only catch, however, is that one needs access to the phone physically for it to be tapped and there’s a high danger of being detected.

Legal and illegal tapping

When it comes to the government and authorities resorting to phone-tapping, however, the process is much more difficult to detect. According to the rules, the government can ask a telephone operator to help them track phones by providing the agencies with relevant coordinates and technical know-how that can be used to snoop on live conversations.

A piece in the Economic Times describes how a legal-tapping would look like:

“A room closely monitored by a CCTV with three to four workstations, desktop monitors and headphones. There are one or two AC-sized servers, or recording instruments, tied with cables provided by telecom service providers. The entry to the room is restricted except for designated officials who need to use biometrics before entering. Equipment is imported and settings customised by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who get the contract. Cost of a server that records the conversation is Rs 10-15 lakh.”

Meanwhile, there’s another kind of interception that is illegal and much harder to track. In 2010, Saikat Datta wrote for Outlook explaining how moving vehicles equipped with phone tapping instruments were being used massively by the National Technical Research Organisations to “randomly” tune into conversations of the citizens in a “bid to track down terrorists.”

A senior intelligence official described the process to the magazine:

“Depending on weather conditions we can detect and intercept a GSM mobile number at least 2 km away even though the number is not available to us.”

“All we have to do is to set up a mobile monitoring system by placing the device in a car and then drive around the likely areas of the phone we want to put under surveillance. Once the call is detected, the device hooks on to the number and continues to track and record calls made or received. Sometimes, we take a voice sample from a TV recording and use it to identify the cellphone if we are monitoring a public figure.”

Technology is making it simpler every day. A privacy-rights lawyer spoke to Scroll on the condition of anonymity and explained other ways in which phone conversations can be tapped, in addition to apps mentioned above.

“This kind of vehicle-based monitoring is quite prevalent as well as easy to do if one has just the right kind of technology which is frankly available to anyone,” he said. “Moreover, nowadays people turn to local technicians etc to plant a physical bug in phones and landlines even as there are allegations that linemen of fixed line phones are sometimes assisting police and private parties in bugging phones.”