NTRO: Turf War or Compromised?

Many would have put down the front page news of one government organisation accusing another of wrongdoing as an instance of turf war, which partly it could be. National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) stood accused by Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEIT) of hacking into the National Informatics Center’s (NIC) network. NIC hosts the entire IT infrastructure of various central and state government ministries and institutions: ^^^NIC provides internet connectivity to all ministries and its NICNET has institutional linkages with the central government, state governments and union territories. All government officials have email IDs issued by NIC^^^.

DEIT accused ^^^the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), India’s technical intelligence gathering agency, of penetrating/ hacking into the National Informatics Center (NIC) network. The DEIT has cited a report prepared by its operations division, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (ICERT), listing specific instances when NTRO reportedly hacked into NIC infrastructure and extracted sensitive data connected to various ministries^^^. Earlier, NIC had refused to ^^^give access (logs) to NTRO to conduct “penetrative testing”, the purpose of which is to sensitise agencies about cyber threats^^^. Apparently, sometime in February, J Satyanarayana, Secretary, DEIT, wrote to Shivashankar Menon, National Security Advisor, requesting him to examine if NTRO played a role in hacking the official eMail IDs issued to government bureaucrats by NIC.

The turf wars among the shadowy arms of the State are neither new nor infrequent. Often, they have innocuous aims such as one-upmanship. But swords are also crossed when covert plans of one run into the well laid traps of the other. Less than a year ago, ^^^NTRO had earlier warned that NIC’s network is penetrable and prone to cyber attacks. Over 10,000 email addresses of top government officials were hacked on July 12 last year, just days after NTRO issued an alert. The attack was blamed on state actors based in countries inimical to India’s interests^^^. The euphemism of “countries inimical to India’s interests” stands for Pakistan, China, principally the latter. And now we have NIC accusing NTRO of hacking the email IDs of bureaucrats. It is not explicitly stated if NIC is referring to the incidence of 12 July 2012, or this is a separate “cyber attack”. Though the incidence took place on 12 July, it came to public light only on 18 December 2012 when newspaper reported, Over 10,000 email IDs hit in ‘worst’ cyber attack. At that time it was said, ^^^India’s government and military have suffered one of the worst cyber attacks in the nation’s history, after over 10,000 email accounts belonging to top officials were compromised, despite a warning from the country’s cyber security agency. The attack came on 12 July, four days after the government was warned by the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre (NCIIPC), part of the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), that some sophisticated malware was spotted targeting specific individuals and organisations. Email addresses belonging to officials working at the Prime Minister’s Office, defence, home, finance and external affairs ministries and intelligence agencies were nabbed in the attack, which has been blamed on state actors^^^.

What is of critical interest here is that a warning is issued and immediately thereafter it fructifies. Such Prophetic accuracy is a classic signature of renowned intelligence agencies such as CIA, FBI, or Mossad. NTRO was created soon after the Kargil conflict as a dedicated technical intelligence gathering agency. It also marked the period when Indian establishment moved firmly close to USA as was also evidenced by the nuclear cooperation talks that were initiated by the A B Bajpayee led NDA government. One fall out of this cosying up was the closer cooperation sought between Indian and USA/ Israeli intelligence agencies. Such cooperation was stepped up in UPA governance, and got extra fillip when P Chidambaram was at the helm of Home Ministry. If NIC has gone public in accusing NTRO, then it stands to reason it has solid evidence to support its charge. In that case, it may turn out that what was blamed on “inimical state actors” was actually the handiwork of NTRO. What could be the purpose of such a hack? A benign explanation is that NTRO wished to establish its relevance in the pecking order of intelligence agencies, where the most important duo- Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Research And Analysis Wing (RAW) were not favourably disposed towards it. A far more worrying and troublesome possibility is that NTRO is penetrated by foreign intelligence agencies, whether of “friendly” states or inimical states is an all together different matter to investigate. NTRO is vulnerable to such penetration because India is critically dependent upon  external sources for advanced software and hardware required for technical surveillance and intelligence. Such dependence opens up opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities of Indian intelligence agencies. If NTRO stands guilty as accused, then it also stands guilty of flouting its brief: ^^^The government has granted nine intelligence agencies the right to lawfully intercept and monitor communications within the country but, ironically, the technical intelligence agency created exclusively for the purpose does not figure in the list. On January 17, the government notified the standard operating procedure (SOP) for lawful interception and monitoring. The list of agencies empowered to do so left out the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO). “It means the NTRO cannot carry out any legal interception, definitely not within Indian borders,” a senior official said… According to sources in the intelligence community, the NTRO’s absence from the list could be due to opposition from the home ministry, which did not want classification of the NTRO as an intelligence agency and its notification as a monitoring agency. It was also opposed by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which had for years protested the inclusion of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in the list of monitoring agencies^^^.

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