Pragmatic | Break the NATGRID-lock

The New Architecture of India’s Security rests on the foundation of a NATGRID.

For the second time — that too after the Union Home Minister had himself gone public owning the first SNAFU — the list of 50 Most wanted Indian fugitives based in Pakistan has an individual listed who is on Indian soil. It is an embarrassing mistake and reflects poorly on the government of India, and the Union Home Ministry in particular.

This embarrassment could, in all probability, have been avoided if the NATGRID would have been in place. After taking over as the Union Home Minister, P Chidambaram had laid out “A New Architecture of India’s Security” in a speech on 23rd December 2009. On the NATGRID proposal, he had said:

Some steps in this direction are self-evident. For example, there is a need to network all the databases that contain vital information and intelligence. Today, each database stands alone. It does not talk to another database. Nor can the ‘owner’ of one database access another database. As a result, crucial information that rests in one database is not available to another agency. In order to remedy the deficiency, the Central Government has decided to set up NATGRID. Under NATGRID, 21 sets of databases will be networked to achieve quick, seamless and secure access to desired information for intelligence/enforcement agencies. This project is likely to be completed in 18 – 24 months from now.[PIB]

Eighteen months down the line, the project has not even got the go-ahead from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The Detailed Project Report for NATGRID has been ready since December 2010. Once it gets CCS approval, the entire system will be in place in three phases within a period of two years. The stipulated tenure of the CEO of NATGRID, Raghu Raman is expiring on 31st May. The government is reported to have sanctioned a six-month extension for him. Last week, Union Home Secretary wrote to the Cabinet Secretary asking him to seek the Prime Minister’s intervention in sanctioning the project.

Here are more details about the NATGRID project.

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.

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 [ Images ], 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.[Rediff]

There are primarily three objections to the NATGRID proposal. One, concerns over the possibility of compromising with individual privacy or the data being misused if such details fell in wrong hands. Many civil rights groups having described the plan as security agencies being given “the rights to spy” on the common man. The Home Ministry counters that charge by suggesting that has taken all care to have an inbuilt safeguard mechanism within NATGRID so that the available data is not misused. After all, the data, which is to be collected/processed at one place within the Grid, is already available with various agencies like income tax, immigration, passport and telecom authorities.

Two, the question of duplication. Some ministries have objected to the project, saying that it was duplication of work already being done by the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) functioning under the National Security Adviser (NSA), which coordinates and collates inputs available with various security and intelligence agencies. The Home Ministry has 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.

Three, turf wars. The NSA already has under its aegis, since 2004, the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) – a highly specialized technical intelligence-gathering “super-feeder agency” – to act as a clearing house for all other members of the security establishment. 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.

These objections were reportedly raised in the CCS meeting last year, and have stalled the project since.

Sources say finance minister Pranab Mukherjee objected to the proposal of NatGrid on the grounds that it will violate the privacy law. Defence minister AK Antony reportedly expressed reservations contending that the system of Joint Intelligence Committee, where all top notch intelligence agencies share information, was working satisfactorily; hence there was no need for a new body.[DNA]

There is a likelihood that the public embarrassment of producing a wrong list of most wanted fugitives might finally spur the government into action. The pressure from the Home Ministry, and the forthcoming inaugural India-US Bilateral Homeland Security Dialogue in Delhi later this month may also lead the government to decide on this long-delayed project.

NATGRID, an umbrella organisation of investigating agencies to provide quick-time response to the demand for information on suspected terrorists and offenders of the law, can prevent a repetition of the embarrassing error witnessed now. It has to be the basic foundation, over which this new architecture of India’s security can take shape. One hopes that Mr Chidambaram still remembers the concluding words of his speech of 23rd December 2009.

There is the danger of a terror-free year inducing complacency, signs of which can be seen everywhere. A strange passivity seems to have descended upon the people: they are content to leave matters relating to security to a few people in the Government and not ask questions or make demands. I wish to raise my voice of caution and appeal to all of you assembled here, and to the people at large, that there is no time to be lost in making a thorough and radical departure from the present structure. If, as a nation, we must defend ourselves in the present day and prepare for the future, it is imperative that we put in place a new architecture for India’s security.[PIB]

Can we start with getting the NATGRID in place at the earliest? Cabinet Committee on Security, are you listening?

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.