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Govt plans NATGRID to tackle terror

February 06, 2010 03:27 IST
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Big brother has come to India, as if the Unique Identification Number project wasn't enough, the government wants to network 21 available databases across government and private agencies to 'flag potential terrorist threats.' The government believes that UID project may not be enough to eliminate the risks of terror on the domestic front.

In less than two years, these databases will be linked to enable security and intelligence agencies get any information at the press of a button under the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), a brainchild of Home Minister P Chidambaram. NATGRID is currently awaiting the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security.

A Home Ministry document acknowledges sensitivity and secrecy of the data available on the grid by stressing that only 11 selected government agencies will be able to access the grid and a special mechanism will prevent any leakage of data. As such, the raw data will reside with the provider agencies and will be readily available to NATGRID, as it will only take abstracted and approved subsets of information from the original databases.

The new system is being designed to help the government agencies combat terror and threats to internal security by generating "actionable" intelligence through search and retrieval from the networked databases. The grid will have a command centre that will double up as an anti-terror hotline and will have an international connect to network with data available in other countries that is useful to keep a tab on suspects. 

This project is being headed by 43-year old Captain Raghu Raman who has been hired on a 18 month contract and enjoys the perks of a joint secretary.. Raman, an former soldier previously headed Mahindra's Special Services Group that provided corporate risk mitigation services

The Home Ministry's proposal before CCS for administrative and financial sanction envisages a total workforce of 290, including 98 'outside consultants,' who have all been identified by the CEO. The unit is ready to get cracking with the mission of linking various databases in four phases. 

The eleven agencies who will have access to the database include the Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Military Intelligence, Revenue Intelligence, National Intelligence Agency and National Security Council. Personnel from these agencies will be work with NATGRID to liaison with their parent organisations and guide them in usage of the data generated.

The first phase is limited to linking up only the databases that are available with the Centre, besides those of one or two state entities as a concurrent pilot project. The first phase is limited to the data already accessible through the current procedures.

All the authorised agencies will be linked up among themselves as also with government agencies like Railways, Air India, Income Tax department and state police and the private agencies like banks, insurance companies, telecom service providers and the Securities and Exchange Board of India.

Sources say a limited analytical capability will begin as the networking begins in the first phase, though the operationalisation of the intelligence produced will remain the responsibility of the operating units like the National Security Guard, Army or Police.

It is the second phase of networking that will provide NATGRID with the analytical capability to cross-link different pieces of information and flag "tripwires" that indicate some unlawful or terrorist activity is in progress or likely to take place. In this phase and onwards, NATGRID will recommend improvements of the databases and development of unconventional but highly valuable data sources like visitor records of jails and checking sales of fertilizer,which can be used to make improvised explosives.

The telecom and internet service providers will be mandated by regulations to compulsorily link up their databases with NATGRID. The databases so far identified for being linked in the grid include those of rail and air travel, phone calls, bank accounts, credit card transactions, passport and visa records, PAN cards,  land and property records, automobile ownership and driving licences.

With the 11 user agencies and 21 databases identified for networking, Chidambaram is hopeful of a fully operational NATGRID within two years. Though it is envisaged to be implemented in four phases, sources say the grid will start providing relevant information even while integration under these phases is in progress.

Like the Unique Identification card project headed by former Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani, Raman was specially picked up to head NATGRID to impart professionalism. He brings added advantage of expertise in weapons, armament, missiles and armed warfare and commando operations. Raman is also trained in hacking and competitive intelligence.

After Chidambaram announced the government's decision to create NATGRID last year, some ministries tried to block it on the ground of duplication of work already done by other agencies. One such objection was that the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) functioning under the National Security Adviser was already coordinating and collating inputs available with various security and intelligence agencies. 

The Home Ministry clarified that NSCS is only a policy making body and may use the databases interlinked by NATGRID while the latter will be actually developing and maintaining grid and associated applications to ensure smooth information search and retrieval over a range of databases with a focus on terrorist activities.

Another attempt to sabotage NATGRID, whose CEO will report to nobody except the Home Minister and the home secretary, was made by suggesting that it will be a duplication of the Hyderabad-based National Technical Research Organisation's (NTRO) work. The NTRO was setup under the NSA to augment the technical intelligence capabilities of the country, with huge budget, manpower and technical resources. The NTRO was set up for cyber security, crypto systems, strategic hardware and software development, strategic monitoring, data gathering and processing and aviation and remote sensing.

The Home Ministry shot down the suggestion to bring NTRO, with its technical intelligence capabilities, on the NATGRID board, pointing out that the two agencies have different charter as NTRO's main role was that of technical interception, whereas NATGRID's role is that of connectivity and retrieval of information.
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