Do you know who is seeing your personal data?

I have had a surreal day.

Early in the morning, I received a telephone call from an Indian woman, who claimed she was from CBI, the criminal investigation agency in India, and said she was investigating a chap, let’s call him ‘P’. She asked me if I knew this chap, which I do not. I then asked her if she could have dialled a wrong number. She read out my new landline number – which even my father does not yet have, as I have just moved – and my mobile number. She then proceeded to ask me about a member of my family – let’s call this person ‘R’ – with details of the person’s address etc. At this point, I said I should first like to know who you are and what your contact number is. She readily gave me a name (‘E’) and a number and then hung up. When I dialled the number, surprise, surprise it did not work.

It so happens that CBI is indeed investigating a person named P, but it is highly unlikely that this is the same person as R’s neighbour of the same name.

Wait, it gets worse.

Since this telephone call was made across national jurisdictions, I telephoned Interpol in Delhi. I informed them that I was a British national, entitled to some prior notice if this sort of enquiries were to be made. I was then advised that nobody by the name E is working on the enquiry into the matters concerning P, which by now was not a surprise.

Further the CBI Control Room informed me that a CBI operative, if involved in an international telephone call, will be very senior and will either not identify himself or identify himself at the start of the call, so you can refuse to have the conversation if you prefer. They also encouraged me to make a formal written complaint to Interpol and to the police in the UK.

Once I could see this was a fraudulent call, I started exploring possible pranksters. One possibility was a nephew, who had recently been a victim of a practical joke played by me. I emailed him. He said it was not him at all and that he would never play such an elaborate prank on me.

That possibility discarded, I asked R about possible theories and here is part of the reply that I received:

“This is definitely a fraudulent problem by some miscreant in my mobile telephony provider’s call centre or my fixed line telephony provider’s call centre, who may be a relative of my neighbour P.

P and his wife fight often and she often takes her kid to her parents’ place, while P works nights in some software company.

It is not a stretch to think he is suspected of having extra marital affairs. The caller is probably checking on him.

Don’t worry about me! This is typical Delhi behaviour. Delhites think extra marital affairs, boozing, spouses going separate ways are the in-thing.”

If only I could muster the sanity and calmness that R is showing!

But if this is closest to the real explanation, then let’s leave aside the effect of the 24X7 economy on the fabric of the Indian society for a moment.

Even knowing that this is still a postulate and that one swallow does not a summer make, I can see why we all have good reasons to be worried about how and where our personal information, banking and telephony details and other critical data are held. Since R does not get paper bills, the only way to access R’s phone records is at the service provider’s end. That is probably where my landline and mobile numbers were obtained by the caller.

While malafide intent is not the monopoly of offshore locations, what do we understand about the escalation mechanisms and the punitive measures in place in another country? More importantly, when such critical information is accessible to many individuals, what other misuses are possible?

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