News : Govt's Internet spy systems fail to capture 100% data traffic

Looks like it might take a bit longer for the government to intercept messages with keywords such as ‘ammonium nitrate’ or ‘bomb’ passing through emails, web forums, blogs, social networks and even images.

In a first of its kind live competition held between two spy systems developed by reputed tech arms of India’s national security apparatus, both failed to capture 100% internet data traffic, one system even crashing a number of times during the test held in January, reveal documents reviewed by ET.

The competition was a precursor to an Internet scanning and coordination centre, which India wants to put in place, just like the ones used by US, UK, China, Iran and other countries.

In the live competition held near the Air Force Station, Arjangarh, a high-level committee declared Defence Ministry’s ‘Netra’ system a winner. ‘Netra’ beat NTRO’s ‘Vishwarupal’, on technical superiority concerns that the latter was developed in collaboration with a private firm Paladion Networks. Paladion’s scanning system information was exposed on Wikileaks, three months ago.

DRDO’s Netra will now be made a robust system, to scan all tweets, status updates, messages, emails, internet calls, blogs and forums for keywords such as ‘attack’, ‘bomb’ and ‘drill’ within shortest time possible. Quick response is crucial for such a system, which can save many lives, in the nick of time.

During the test demo, “Vishwarupal”, an Internet monitoring system developed by the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), technical intelligence arm, under Prime Minister’s Office, crashed a number of times and had to be restarted. The system did not capture entire internet traffic passing via its probes installed at Sify Technologies premises in Delhi. It could return results only after repeated attempts and that too with a latency of 15 minutes.

“Scanning of internet traffic happens in packets. If the packets are too large, a system would need better hardware,” explains Alok Gupta, founder and MD of Pyramid Cyber Security and Forensics, which works with various security agencies. “There are two ways to scan internet — on the fly and scanning while archiving data. The latter may increase latency.”

NTRO’s system was developed in 2008, with Paladion Networks, which has offices in Bangalore, London, Sharjah. Factors such as the system’s IP is not wresting with NTRO, added to its defeat.

During demonstration of rival NETRA, a system developed by Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR), a lab under DRDO, the system showed limited success. Only 3GBPS of traffic out of 28 GBPS could pass through its probes installed at MTNL’s premises. However, NETRA could successfully capture all voice traffic passing through software such as Skype, Google Talk. According to documents reviewed by ET, CAIR expressed its inability to decrypt Skype conversations, unless it resorted to hacking.

The inter-ministerial committee chose Netra as the internet monitoring system to be used by India.

The committee has members from Ministry of Home Affairs, Intelligence Bureau, Department of Telecom, Department of IT, and National Intelligence Agency, which is probing various terror attacks in the country.

The committee also directed NTRO, to wrest the design and source code of its system, exclusively from Paladion, due to a risk on national security.

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