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How safe is your personal information with India being part of Cold War era global snooping network?

The Norwegian snooping incident on its citizens throw in serious questions on India’s role in the SIGINT Seniors network, especially as the government in India is collecting massive sensitive data under its Aadhaar project.

According to recent investigations into leaked classified information, Norway, part of a powerful and secretive cold war era global intelligence network- Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Seniors- along with United States secretly harvested sensitive data of Norwegian citizens. And what is worrying is that India, which is currently running a massive data collection project –Aadhaar, is part of this shadow intelligence network that has its dragnet spread across the globe controlled by US National Security Authority (NSA) .  

The document cache revealed by Whistleblower Edward Snowden and released recently by the Intercept, India joined the NSA led snooping network in 2009. Part of SIGINT Senior’s Pacific Division, India was invited by the network also known as 14 Eyes in 2008 after the Mumbai terrorist attack as US “felt strongly that India’s participation in multilateral intelligence sharing would help mature its Indian SIGINT agencies as well as provide regional [counterterrorism] expertise.” 

Interestedly, the relation between India and the network soured a bit as Indian intelligence agencies leaked the highly classified information exchanged via the SIGINT’s dedicated communication channel- code named CRUSHED ICE.

The SIGINT Senior was formed in 1982 during the height of the cold war period for sourcing information about the Soviet Union’s military. Then known as ‘Five Eyes’, it had nine members, which then grew to 14 after the 2001 World Trade Centre terrorist attack in United States.  

The powerful network consisting of European and Asia-Pacific division now has United Kingdom, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden, along with US. India is the third party member. The Pacific division is much younger than European branch.

From 2006, the intelligence agencies are expanding their dragnet to ‘exploitation of internet’ among other activities that includes sharing intelligence related to piracy in Horn of Africa, targeting suspected terrorists and collaborating on the development of new surveillance tools and techniques. It also includes CENTRE ICE- sharing intelligence about the war in Afghanistan.

The Norwegian incident of alleged information breach of civilians from the facility code named VICTORY GARDEN, soon expanded its tentacles to ‘secretly captured records of phone calls and emails transmitted between law-abiding Norwegians and their friends, families, or colleagues in foreign countries’, an investigation by The Intercept and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, known as NRK, has found.            

As reported, this discovery has thrown in serious questions of India’s role in the SIGINT Seniors network, especially as the government in India is collecting massive sensitive data under its Aadhaar project- the largest of its kind in the world. The project also known as unique identification number that is collecting and storing biometric information- retina and finger print scans- of Indian citizens. Apart from biometrics, the Aadhaar system also have access to citizen’s sensitive and private information like email, phone number and banking details.   Critics of the system have already raises serious concerns about the data privacy and security of the Aadhaar system, as multiple leaks had been reported in recent years.

As illustrated in this article written by Vivan Eyben and published in Newsclick, by submitting Aadhaar details to “your Internet Service Provider (ISP) you provide information to the UIDAI pertaining to what you browse, how often you browse, when you sleep and when you wake. In this way, by obtaining your Aadhaar details, a stranger can have access to everything you do”.

The SIGINT’s internal documents suggests the network is trying expand its net to ‘exploit the internet’ for gathering signal intelligence.

Furthermore, the Section 33 of the India's Aadhaar Act provides the investigation agencies access to Aadhaar information. In India, the definition of investigation and intelligence agencies are blurred, thus technically allowing the spy agencies to have access to these data. And with India being part of the SIGINT Seniors network, this would mean the foreign intelligence organisations could have also have access to these data from Indian intelligence agencies, if required.

The   SIDtoday files also reveal that the NSA analysts are embedded in the Indian intelligence network in New Delhi to coordinate the SIGINT network. The network provides US’s NSA that controls the covert SIGINT alliance a global eye. 

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