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PTA ‘ill-equipped’ to trace grey traffic

LAHORE: As the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) does not have the latest equipment to trace grey traffic, illegal exchanges are causing a loss of billions of rupees to the national exchequer annually.

Apart from financial aspect it has to be checked how many illegal exchanges are being run for militant activities after the Green Town Lahore illegal exchange was unearthed by a premier intelligence agency.

The Federal Investigation Agency along with PTA had busted 14 illegal gateway exchanges in Lahore and elsewhere this year. Going through the loss the grey traffic is causing to the national kitty, the number is not satisfactory.

“We have busted 14 illegal exchanges in Lahore and elsewhere this year in collaboration with the PTA and registered cases against the accused under sections 36 and 37 of Electronic Transactions Act and PTA’s Act 1996. An accused faces up to seven-year imprisonment each under both laws,” FIA (cyber crime wing) Assistant Director Naeem Masood told Dawn on Monday.

He said the operators of all illegal exchanges busted were making huge money but they were not involved in any militant activity. He said since the people involved in this illegal business were causing billions of rupees loss (to the exchequer) more effective mechanism was required to deal with the menace.

To a question, Mr Masood said the FIA was not engaged for the raid on the Green Town illegal gateway exchange. Lahore police have yet to disclose the details of the raid as calls were reportedly routed through this illegal exchange in high profile cases such as Shahbaz Taseer and Ali Haider Gilani.

SHO Green Town Naeem Anwar Bajwa told this reporter that the agency had yet to hand over the culprits arrested in the raid to the police.

Grey traffic is defined as the use of illegal exchanges for making international calls, bypassing the legal routes and exchanges. These illegal exchanges include VOIP (Voice-Over Internet Protocol) that uses a computer; GSM (Global System for Mobile) gateways; WLL (Wireless Local Loop) phones or mobile SIMs.

This traffic may then be distributed onwards using WLL and mobile numbers. Grey routes are arrangements that fall outside the regular course of business between the licenced telecom companies in each country.

The grey part of the route is usually at the far end where the call is terminated. Up to that point, there are normal arrangements to deliver the call from the subscriber to the sending carrier and between the sending carrier and the satellite or cable operator for the trunk part of the call. The grey-ness arises because at the far end the call is made to appear as if it originates locally, as a domestic call, rather than a more expensive international call.

Sohaib Sheikh, an expert in telecom industry, told Dawn that grey traffic could not be easily traced as it was routed through channels which were non-conventional. “To conduct LDI business, grey traffickers use local SIMs. In order to trace these illegal telephone exchanges, operators have to identify SIMs by tracking their usage patterns,” he said.

Mr Sheikh said the number of calls routed through one number would be much higher than the usage of a regular consumer. “The only possible action is to block these numbers on a daily basis and take action against the owners of these numbers. In most cases, the numbers are registered under fake CNICs and therefore the owners cannot be traced. Once the SIMs is identified for routing illegal traffic, the device through which it is being routed can be blocked on an operator’s network,” he said.

Sources said the International Clearing House (ICH) exchange had provided funds for acquiring a latest equipment to check the grey traffic.

Before the ICH which was established last year, each LDI operator (Long Distance and International) had its own method of routing traffic. It was also noticed that some operators were operating through illegal methods to save taxes. “Now the ICH is in place, the authorities concerned can take action against the illegal channels more easily,” a source in PTA said.

An official said there was a need to create awareness among the general public. “If they receive an international call from a local number, they must immediately report it to their operator or PTA’s helpline 0800-55055 (Toll Free Number).”

As PTA chairman slot has been lying vacant for the last several months, the telecom sector is facing problems and addressing the grey traffic is one of them.

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