Representational Image (Photo: iStock)

Shubham Ghosh

A call from a Pakistani spy agency to an Army installation in eastern India has unearthed an illegal telephone exchange in Bangalore in the southern state of Karnataka, raising questions over the possibility of similar systems in other parts of the country. The entire racket was busted by officials of the Military Intelligence wing of the Army’s Southern Command which had intercepted the call a few weeks ago.

It was reported that during the call, a spy from Pakistan asked about general details while posing as a senior officer. When the matter was investigated, sleuths found that some other offices located in various formations like the Movement Control Office and Principal Comptroller of Defence Account were also getting such calls that sought details. A deeper probe followed and it was found that Pakistan-based intelligence agents used the illegal exchanges to connect with Indian citizens and obtained information of military assets.

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According to the officials, the Pakistani agents have started investing in illegal call exchanges that switch Voice over Internet Protocol calls to ordinary Indian mobile calls. To run the operation, SIM (subscriber identity module) boxes are used which run an illegal telephone exchange parallelly. The officials said that a SIM box, also known as a SIM bank, is a hardware-based device used in the telecom sector for terminating direct Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) communication.

An operator uses a technology known ‘migration’ of the SIM cards wherein the registration of the cards jumps on various GSM modules with a certain frequency and it results in multiple GSM gateways located throughout a city or town. The system misleads as it creates an illusion of a real user’s movement by showing that the call is being made from different gateways. This mode of operation helps the operators avoid a SIM card either from getting blocked by service providers or detected by government agencies.

Illegal exchanges cause monetary losses
However, these illegal exchanges not only make the cellular networks face loss but also the government since the operation is not registered and the money generated is not accounted for and non-taxed. It can be used further to support anti-national activities without leaving any money trail.

According to the officials, the “adversary nation” has been found using the SIM boxes often to get sensitive information and maintain contact with their agents who have entered India. The racket’s whereabouts were known after the anti-terror cell of Bengaluru Police arrested two persons, who ran an illegal phone exchange and converted international calls into local ones and cause monetary loss and posed a threat to national security, with the help of Military Exchange of the Southern Command. Thirty-two SIM box devices, which have the capacity of using 960 SIM cards at a time, were seized from them, the officials added.

Ibrahim Mullatti Bin Mohammed Kutty, who hails from Malappuram in Kerala, and Gautham B Vishwanathan from Tirupur in Tamil Nadu had placed the 32 devices at six areas of the Karnataka capital to carry out the illegal activities. After a VoIP call is terminated, the same call is further generated to the destination phone with the number appearing to be an Indian one. The Indian Army has issued many advisories and drafted SOPs to prevent leaks but yet a lot of civilian staff end up falling into the trap.