V K Mittal, a former joint secretary in National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), the country&’s premier technical intelligence wing, played the whistleblower and exposed a scam in the organisation to the tune of Rs.800 crore.

An engineer by profession, he has dedicated 33 years of his life to various technical intelligence agencies of the country. Mr Mittal w`as among those who conceptualised and started this highly specialised technical intelligence agency in 2004 on the lines of America&’s National Security Agency (NSA) to develop technological capabilities in aviation and remote sensing, data gathering and processing, cyber security, cryptology systems, strategic hardware and software development and strategic monitoring. NTRO acts as a super feeder agency for providing technical intelligence to all security and intelligence agencies in the country. The agency monitors, intercepts and assesses threats to crucial infrastructure and other vital installations from intelligence gathered using sensors and platforms which include satellites, underwater buoys, drones, VSAT-terminal locators and fibre-optic cable nodal tap points.

Mr Mittal, who had headed NTRO&’s Centre for Communications Applications (CCA), has also worked in the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO). In an interview to VIJAY THAKUR, he discussed the challenges before India’s security agencies in dealing with cyber threats.

Indian scientists and software professionals are leaders in the global IT and software world. Where do we stand in technical intelligence?

Unfortunately, the scenario is just the opposite in technical intelligence. It is hard to believe that a country which has produced world leaders in IT and software hardly stands anywhere in technical surveillance. Most of our technical surveillance equipment and software is produced outside. And the problem is we do not have people of calibre in technical intelligence agencies. Nobody from a reputed engineering institute is ready to join NTRO. We go there, give presentations, but they are not even ready to listen to us. Forget IITs, students from regional engineering colleges prefer to join private companies instead of NTRO. And those who join quit after getting two or three years’ experience. The attrition rate is really very high. This is a serious cause of concern as we are unable to protect our space and cyber world.

Is it because the government is not taking it seriously; pays tech-int officers poorly or are hurdles being created for youngsters who join NTRO?

As far as the government is concerned, it is very serious, funds have never been a problem for NTRO, and youngsters who are joining this organisation are paid handsomely. Yet we are getting third grade manpower for tech-int jobs. One reason could be that they do not find a congenial working atmosphere in the organisation. The situation in NTRO is simply pathetic.

What do you mean by working atmosphere? Organisations like ISRO have proved themselves to the world and are the best examples of Indian scientists.

ISRO has successes because of private players. It is giving most of its work to private sub-contractors. And it has a thoroughly professional atmosphere. In government circles, NTRO, which is considered the backbone of the country&’s main security network, is called National Tired and Retired Officers organisation. Almost all the top brass in the NTRO are retired bureaucrats and tech-int guys who have completed their tenure. According to a rough estimate, half the NTRO officers are retired persons working on contract. And 80 per cent of the youngsters who are joining NTRO are relatives of existing NTRO staff. Now you tell me, should we expect professionalism in this organisation?

But thanks to the initiatives taken by the new government, they are now weeding out unproductive and unprofessional people. Let’s see.

Where do we stand in the international technical intelligence area and against our neighbouring countries?

India started cyber security work two-and-a-half decades ago and so far our government and private websites are not secure. According to a rough estimate, over three lakh Indian web mails and websites are hacked every year. And the reason is obvious; no IT specialist worth his salt would like to join this organisation.

In China over 80,000 IT professionals have been working day and night for the past 30 years to strengthen its technical intelligence and information warfare. Today they have the capabilities to penetrate into US and European cyber world. Penetrating into Indian cyber world is child’s play for them.

Now, look at India. Three decades ago, DRDO started a programme SITAR (Society for Integrated Circuit Technology and Research) to make semiconductors, and till today we have not been able to produce a 100 per cent indigenous IC (integrated circuit). The fact is we have not yet developed a good quality digital software deniable radio (DSDA) or a high tech antenna for moon mission. Despite the strength DRDO has, it has not produced a small integrated device, micro processor, or even a memory device. Now compare it with a private player Intel, which introduces a new micro processor every six months.

India is three decades behind developed countries, and the gap will continue to increase. It is harsh but true that India will not be able to catch up with other developed countries. Let’s admit that we do not have capability, desire or calibre to beat developed countries.

I know a small country, which has 214 stations through which it has integrated its sea base, land base, air base, ship and submarine base into one system. This system will alert it about any penetration into its space and cyber world within no time, but we are nowhere near them.

Secondly, the human involvement has come down drastically. Intelligence collection and collation is mostly dependent on technical surveillance. The drones which are striking Sudan or remote towns of Pakistan are being operated from USA. Satellites collect information and pass it on to tech surveillance teams. This is confirmed on the ground and the operation is launched, and within the next 30 to 60 minutes the target is hit.

Having said all that, we are well placed as far as developing countries are concerned. We are far ahead of many developing countries. But let’s also admit the fact that India has no danger from any of the developing countries.

What should Indian technical intelligence agencies do to cover this gap?

Very tough to answer. May be we can reduce the gap between technical intelligence agencies of developed countries and Indian agencies by procuring high-tech surveillance units. We are already trying to do that, but there is a danger in this. One, we will not get top of the line equipment and two, there is the inherent danger of having traps. Thirdly, being foreign origin equipment it will be maintained by foreign companies. As a result India&’s tech-int and cyber world are highly risky. There is a high degree of suspicion in the government that such systems are very compromised, though we have no evidence to prove it.

Even the routine communication systems for security forces, which are produced in this country, are nothing but production under licence from other countries. We cannot even produce a good quality highly reliable secure communication system. We are entering into agreements with other countries, importing critical components and assembling them in India.