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Why India failed to discover the ISIS Twitter handle?

Back in 2009, after the investigation team of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks found answers to most of the questions that were glaring at both the national and international communities, it was the FBI who completed the final lap in the case. They fished out that a man named David Headley, the master mind behind the attack, filling the most important missing link in the case. 

Five years later, India almost stared at a similar situation (though of lesser magnitude and in the cyber world) when Bangalore based Mehdi Masroor Biswas, was allegedly found to be operating the pro-ISIS twitter handle. It was a British broadcaster Channel 4 who discovered Biswas and brought it to the attention of the authorities. Last year, when communal violence broke out in some parts of Uttar Pradesh, a Pakistani news organisation reported that a morphed video was being circulated to fan sentiments. 

After these instances, questions are being raised about why India’s own security apparatus can’t detect such threats to national security? A senior government official said that intelligence agencies in the country keep on scanning the information on the Internet for such leads however, the systems “definitely” needs to be beefed up significantly . 

Perhaps, as a first step towards this, the home ministry on Wednesday formed a committee to prepare a roadmap for tackling cyber crimes in the country. 

It will give suitable recommendations on all facets of cyber crime, apart from suggesting possible partnerships with public and private sector, NGOs and international bodies. 

According to Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bengaluru-based research organisation, the Centre for Internet and Society, it’s time we moved closer towards intelligent and targeted surveillance, rather than mass surveillance. This will require monitoring a selected accounts or profiles, instead of tapping information from across the population. Old-fashioned detective work is also very important, as it has been revealed in the Biswas case.

Another problem we face is that a lot of data is being pooled currently in the country by different agencies, however, to little use. “We must free-up our law enforcement agencies and intelligence services from the curse of having too much data,” Abraham adds.

Since most of the Internet companies are headquartered outside India, the country also has trouble accessing information over these networks. 

“India’s surveillance system fails to track the servers of internet giants like Google or Facebook because these do not have servers in the country. Our system is only confined within the country,” says Pavan Duggal, a leading cyber law expert.

Since the US has the capability to access information from telecom companies, service providers like Twitter and Facebook and the consortia that run sub-marine cables, these companies cooperate in a much more effective and immediate manner, adds Abraham. “But these are things that we will never be able to do in India,” he adds. 

For instance, India follows the mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT) procedure, to gather and exchange information in an effort to enforce public laws or criminal laws. However, this is a time-consuming process and often takes up to two years before we get any data from these companies.

But due to the threat of cyber-terrorism being shared by both companies and governments companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook are cooperating more than before, experts say.

The onus is also on the global leaders to intensify their efforts to tackle the issue. Internet and Jurisdiction Project, an international group who works towards ensuring digital coexistence, tries to get a procedural law between two countries in a harmonized manner and includes collection, storage, handling and processing of evidence. More lubricating efforts should be undertaken internationally on these lines, say experts. Perhaps, the newly appointed committee will take some right steps in this direction. 


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