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SOURCE: THE PRINT

In September last year, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was thrown into a tizzy — critical and “sensitive defence infrastructure” had gone missing from the indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC), INS Vikrant, which is under construction at the Cochin Shipyard in Kochi, Kerala. 

The agency suspected that they were stolen with the “intention of threatening the security of India”.

What followed was a painstaking nine-month probe. Over 6,000 palm and fingerprints were collected from across 15 states and there was on-ground verification of over 1,000 employees. Moreover, a layered voice analysis (LVA) of suspects, which helps detect stress and other emotions by analysis of the human voice was conducted, along with analysis of mobile tower dumps of the scene of crime and the call detail records of employees.

The breakthrough came finally in June this year. The NIA found no spy or terror angle but an alleged theft by two painters — Sumit Kumar Singh and Daya Ram — hired to paint the carrier. Not only were the duo oblivious to the gravity of the crime, they had sold the “critical equipment” for around Rs 7,000 on the online marketplace OLX.

ThePrint takes a look at the case that had forced the NIA to bring in forensic and technological experts to eventually nab two clueless painters. 

Theft atop a carrier
Between July and September 2019, Sreekumar Raja, deputy general manager, IAC project, reported to the local police the theft of over 20 critical computer hardware components, including processors, RAMs and 256 GB solid state drives installed on computer systems in the carrier.

This was followed by an inspection of all the computer systems that formed part of the Integrated Platform Management System (IPMS) aboard the aircraft carrier by scientific experts of Kerala Police. It yielded no results.

Keeping in mind the sensitivity of the case, the NIA was called to take over the probe and the agency filed an FIR on 26 September 2019.

Zeroing in on suspects
As the investigation progressed, a source said the NIA found that during the day, between 1,500 and 2,000 people worked on the carrier, while 600 to 700 employees took up over-time assignments after 6 pm. Around 200 to 300 of them worked through the night.

“Since so many people worked aboard, frisking all persons entering or leaving the vessel at the gangways was not possible,” the source said. “Also, the footage collected from two CCTV cameras installed on the gangway were of low quality and hence not amenable to any technical analysis,” the source said.

During investigation it was found that the affected multi functional console (MFC) — MFC-25 — had functioned properly on 24 August last year but began having problems on 28 August.

“The HR of Cochin Shipyard was then asked to give a list of contractors, supervisors and workers who had worked on the IAC project between 24 August and 28 August when MFC-25 was targeted,” the source said. “Another list of employees, supervisors and owners of Inelmech Company, which carried out the termination work of MFCs in IAC was also obtained.”

The NIA then secured the list of 3,628 contractual employees who had entered CSL between 24 and 28 August along with the list of 176 employees of Inelmech and list of 195 IAC contractors.

“Investigators then conducted meetings with around 150 IAC contractors. Besides, muster rolls with available personal details of all staff who had worked on IAC between 24 and 28 August were sought immediately,” the source said.

“Constructors were also instructed to provide details of all staff who had worked on IAC during the time when the theft was reported first,” he added.

Fingerprints, field verification, LVA but no breakthrough
After getting details of each person aboard the carrier, including non-employees, the NIA began collecting finger and palm prints.

Teams were constituted and statements of contractors, officers, supervisors, security personnel, their employees who had access to the aircraft carrier were recorded and they were then subjected to layered voice analysis (LVA), but did not yield any result.

“Mobile tower dumps of the scene of crime besides CDRs of all staff whose finger and palm prints were collected were also procured and analysed for any suspicious activity,” the source said.

“Field verification was conducted of 22 persons who had left India after the incident. They were also subjected to LVA through VoIP (Voice over internet Protocol) platforms but nothing suspicious was revealed,” the source said.

Moreover, field verification regarding former staff of CSL in states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Gujarat were also conducted by NIA teams and the finger and palm prints of these persons were collected.

The agency was still in the dark.

It is then, as a last resort, that the NIA announced a reward of Rs 5 lakh for any information that may help crack the case.

“Palm prints of 6,014 staff of CSL did not yield any breakthrough. It is then when a reward of Rs 5 lakh was announced for any information leading to the detection of the crime and multilingual posters publicising the same were pasted in Cochin Shipyard besides disseminated on various social media groups of the shipyard staff,” the source said.

The breakthrough
The much-awaited breakthrough in the case came on 3 June, when the owner of Maxeve Engineering Consultants, which was engaged for the painting work on IAC for a year, complained that some of his staff were involved in petty theft of their own tools.

He told investigators that his company had ceased operations during Onam in August last year, due to issues with trade unions regarding grant of bonus of his staff and that many workers had left.

Then on 5 June, the fingerprint experts from the Single Digit Fingerprint Bureau in Kochi reported that on detailed comparison of one chance print developed from MFC-28, the same has been found similar to the right palm impression of one Sumit Kumar Singh, with employee code 54206 of Maxeve Engineering Consultants.

“That was a big breakthrough. We immediately mounted technical surveillance on suspects Sumit Kumar Singh and one Daya Ram,” the source said.

On 9 June, NIA teams conducted searches at the house of Singh in Munger, Bihar, and Daya Ram in Hanumangarh, Rajasthan. One missing solid state drive and one RAM were recovered from them.

“The men also confessed to have stolen it from IAC between July and September,” the source said.

The accused were then arrested and after a confession of Sumit, NIA team conducted searches at the house of his elder brother in Surat and also recovered the remaining stolen property, except one processor.

Sold through OLX
The NIA then began looking for the missing processor. During questioning, the duo told police that they had sold the processor to a freelance graphic designer in Ernakulam district through OLX.

“The men confessed to the conspiracy and commission of theft of hardware components from IAC by gaining access to the critical computer systems without authorisation,” the source said. “They also admitted to having sold one stolen processor over OLX to a person from Muvattupuzha in September.”

“To recover the processor, data on OLX was scrutinised and the buyer was traced. The missing processor was then recovered from the computer of the buyer,” he added. “Sumit had himself installed that processor in the computer of the graphic designer to prove that it was in working condition.”

The two accused were also subjected to a polygraph test in July this year and on 4 September, a charge sheet was also filed against the men under Section 66F of IT Act, cyber terrorism, threatening national security and others.