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General Studies 3 >> Science & Technology




1. Why in the news

A senior executive of Saudi Arabian oil company Saudi Aramco spent several days in prison in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand after he was arrested by police in July with an unauthorised satellite phone

2. Background

It’s not legal to carry one in India unless you have permission. Visitors to the country are specifically advised not to carry a satellite phone without permission. Restrictions on the possession and use of these phones were tightened after the Pakistani terrorists who attacked Mumbai in November 2008 used these devices to keep in touch with their Lashkar-e-Taiba handlers.
Fergus MacLeod, who works for the Dhahran-based oil company Saudi Aramco, was arrested after Indian authorities traced the illegal phone
Fergus MacLeod, was arrested under sections of the Indian Telegraph Act and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act

3. Rules by laws

  • Section 6 of The Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 makes it illegal to possess “any wireless telegraphy apparatus, other than a wireless transmitter, in contravention of the provisions of section 3 of the Act”.
  • Section 3 says “no person shall possess wireless telegraphy apparatus” without a licence “save as provided by Section 4”
  • Section 4 of the Act allows the central government to make rules under the Act to “exempt any person or any class of persons from the provisions of this Act either generally or subject to prescribed conditions, or in respect of specified wireless telegraphy apparatus”
Department of Telecommunications says: “Satellite phones are permitted: (i) With specific permission/ NOC from Department of Telecommunications, Government of India; or (ii) As provisioned by M/s BSNL in accordance with license granted to M/s BSNL for provision and operation of satellite based service using Gateway installed in India.”
  • Indian Embassy in several countries around the world specify that “Use of Thuraya/Iridium satellite phones is unauthorized/illegal in India”, and that “any passenger carrying satellite phone(s) via baggage is required to declare the same to Customs on arrival and produce permission for use from the concerned authority.”
  • Any individual found to be in possession of an unauthorized satellite phone in India is liable to be prosecuted as per Indian law, and all unauthorized sets found in possession of the individual will be seized by Indian law enforcement agencies
4.How does a satellite phone work?

Satellite connectivity relies on satellites rather than cell phone towers, which provide connectivity to regular cell phones. Satellite phones work in remote areas where there are no cell phone towers and therefore, no cellular connectivity. Satellite (or sat) phones usually cover most of the planet with fairly robust connectivity

5.Can you get a sat phone for yourself?

Theoretically, yes, as long as they are allowed by law, and the requisite permissions have been obtained. If you need to use a satellite phone inside the country, you must purchase it in India from an authorised distributor.

 6.Indian Telegraph Act,1885

  • Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act reads: “On the occurrence of any public emergency, or in the interest of the public safety, the Central Government or a State Government or any officer specially authorised in this behalf by the Central Government or a State Government may, if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of an offence, for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct that any message or class of messages to or from any person or class of persons, or relating to any particular subject, brought for transmission by or transmitted or received by any telegraph, shall not be transmitted, or shall be intercepted or detained, or shall be disclosed to the Government making the order or an officer thereof mentioned in the order…”
  • Under this law, the government can intercept calls only in certain situations — the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order, or for preventing incitement to the commission of an offence.
  • These are the same restrictions imposed on free speech under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
  • Significantly, even these restrictions can be imposed only when there is a condition precedent  the occurrence of any public emergency, or in the interest of public safety
  •  A provison in Section 5(2) states that even this lawful interception cannot take place against journalists. “Provided that press messages intended to be published in India of correspondents accredited to the Central Government or a State Government shall not be intercepted or detained, unless their transmission has been prohibited under this sub-section.”

7.Supreme Court intervention

  • In Public Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India (1996), the Supreme Court pointed out lack of procedural safeguards in the provisions of the Telegraph Act and laid down certain guidelines for interceptions
  • The Supreme Court’s guidelines formed the basis of introducing Rule 419A in the Telegraph Rules in 2007 and later in the rules prescribed under the IT Act in 2009
  • Rule 419A states that a Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of Home Affairs can pass orders of interception in the case of Centre, and a secretary-level officer who is in-charge of the Home Department can issue such directives in the case of a state government

8.IT Act, 2000

  1. Section 69 of the Information Technology Act and the Information Technology (Procedure for Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009 were enacted to further the legal framework for electronic surveillance
  2. Under the IT Act, all electronic transmission of data can be intercepted. So, for a Pegasus-like spyware to be used lawfully, the government would have to invoke both the IT Act and the Telegraph Act
  3. Apart from the restrictions provided in Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act and Article 19(2) of the Constitution, Section 69 the IT Act adds another aspect that makes it broader — interception, monitoring and decryption of digital information “for the investigation of an offence”



For Prelims: Indian Telegraph Act, Indian Wireless Telegraph Act

For Mains:

1.Carrying a satellite phone is a crime in India. Comment


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