Presence of China, Pakistan-based mobile services detected in Dharamsala, Mcleodganj, poses threat to national security

Ambika Mahajan

Nestled in the Dhauladhars, the tiny town of Mcleodganj first shot to fame six decades ago when the Tibetan spiritual leader, His Holiness Dalai Lama, first set his foot here. As the 14th Dalai Lama chose to settle down in Mcleodganj with several thousands of his followers and also set up the Tibetan government in exile here, this hitherto nondescript hill town assumed strategic importance. And came forever under the Chinese radar.

Birds eye view of Mcleodganj-cropped-min

Bird's eye view of Mcleodganj

Strong mobile and radio signals detected in high altitude areas adjoining Mcleodganj

In the wake of heightened tensions with both China and Pakistan, the detection of strong radio and mobile signals from both the hostile neighbours in this Dharamsala suburb of Kangra district (Himachal Pradesh) poses serious questions.

For instance, the village of Dharamkot, which is barely 9 kilometres from Mcleodganj, gets mobile signals from Zong and Ufone. Zong is a fully-owned state subsidiary of the world's largest telecom company China Mobile Communications Corporation. Ufone, on the other hand, is the third largest telecom operator in Pakistan.

Signals from Pakistan based telecom companies-crop

Besides the two said operators, networks from Mobilink and Telenor PK, both Pakistan-based telecom companies, can also be detected in adjoining areas of Galu and Triund from time to time. The highly sensitive and heavily guarded Dalai Lama temple and his residence can be seen from these vantage points adjoining the town.

Dalai Lama temple-crop-min

The Dalai Lama Temple

Ironical as it may sound, connectivity of any of the major Indian mobile networks in the said areas continues to be extremely poor.

Similarly, FM receivers in Dharamsala can catch radio signals from Pakistan-based radio networks at FM 93.0 and FM 93.4 frequencies. FM 93.0 is based in Pakistan capital Islamabad and is run by the Pakistan Broadcast Corporation, whereas FM 93.4, according to telecom experts, is most likely a low frequency private station operating on a 5 kilowatt transmitter.

The town of Dharamsala is of strategic importance to both our belligerent neighbours because it houses several important establishments of the Indian armed forces, and Yol cantonment in the Kangra valley, 10 kilometres southeast of Dharamsala.

Signals from both these sources, telecom and radio, pose a grave threat to national security keeping in view the fact that anti-India forces who sneak into the Indian territory across any of these porous borders can continue to be in touch with their handlers based in Pakistan or China using Pakistani SIM card, without being detected by Indian defence experts.

As per established international norms, mobile towers should be erected such that the signals are not available beyond 500 metres on either side of the border.

It is obvious that both our hostile neighbours, who have scant regard for international opinion or controversies, are openly flouting these norms in this area.

Not an isolated incident

Earlier in February this year, a phishing campaign was targeted specifically at pro Tibetans in the area by distributing ExileRAT Trojan malware, using the mailing list of Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government-in-exile. This was done by sharing email(s) which seemed to have been sent by the CTA. The subject matter of these emails were "Tibet-was-never-a-part-of-China."

The email contained a message from HH Dalai Lama referencing 60 years of Chinese occupation over Tibet. Attached to it was a PowerPoint presentation which was actually a PDF copy of the book "Tibet was never a part of China." A part of the ExileRAT script was hidden in this book which would then go on to infect the computers where this was opened.

Once the systems of the Tibet sympathisers were infected, attackers could steal data from them nefariously, revealed security researchers at Cisco Talos.

"If you look at the attacking campaign's pattern and the nature of the malware, it is clear that this is part of a continuing trend of nation-state actors working to spy on the activities of Central Tibetan Administration and the Tibetan community at large," points out Tenzin Chokden, Malware Research Analyst at CTA, Dharamsala.

"There is a real sense of being monitored at every step and such (phishing) campaigns cause disruptions in the community, he asserted.

Recognising that hackers will continue to make efforts to snoop on the efforts of the sympathisers of the Tibetan cause, Tibetan Computer Resource Center, which functions under the aegis of Dharamsala based Department of Information and International Relations continues to train those on its roll on digital security from time to time, to minimize the possibility of such attacks in future.

Earlier Chinese efforts at espionage in the area have come in the form of sending spies, several of them in the garb of Tibetan monks and nuns, so as to avoid arousing suspicion. Intelligence reports had also gone on to suggest that Chinese officials were trying to lure in disgruntled Tibetans, especially the youth residing in India by offering them baits like easy and well paying jobs or easy cash in return for sensitive information from the area. Since most Tibetan refugees in India do not have good job opportunities and do not foresee a very bright future for themselves, it would not be wrong to assume that several of them can be thus lured into espionage.

Some of the spies earlier arrested from the area had all the required documents like Aadhar cards and voter cards in their possession whereas another impostor nabbed in 2008 was found to have served with the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and in touch with high ranking military officials in Lhasa, as verified from his call details.

Official statement

The sighting of such signals in areas hugely popular with tourists and trekkers has often triggered off panic reactions among the public but strangely enough, none of the officials were aware of the issue.

While the IB officials were not available when contacted, Colonel Devender Anand, Public Relations Officer (PRO) Defence and Media coordinator, said he was unaware of any such mobile or radio signals in the area.  Santosh Patial, Superintendent Police, Kangra, too claimed to be unaware of the same but promised to act upon the same after talking to experts.

"We were not aware of such signals in these highly sensitive areas earlier. Now that the issue has been brought to our notice, we will surely get in touch with defence experts," he assured. "We might also need to talk to telecom experts to see what can be done to check these signals which can be, to say the least, be taken advantage of by spies, smugglers, infiltrators and the like."

Among the various options available with the monitoring agencies is to ask their counterparts based in China and Pakistan to relocate their mobile towers farther away from the respective borders, or take up the issue with Ministry of Home Affairs and install powerful jammers along our side to block out such undesirable cross border signals.

Santosh Patial, the SP, agrees and confirmed with us that he has forwarded the suggestion of setting up jammers with the higher authorities and is hopeful of early action.

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