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Cyberspying: Government may ban Gmail for official communication

by Prasad Krishna last modified Sep 02, 2013 04:19 AM
The government will soon ask all its employees to stop using Google's Gmail for official communication, a move intended to increase security of confidential government information after revelations of widespread cyberspying by the US.

This article was published in the Times of India on August 30, 2013. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

A senior official in the ministry of communications and information technology said the government plans to send a formal notification to nearly 5 lakh employees barring them from email service providers such as Gmail that have their servers in the US, and instead asking them to stick to the official email service provided by India's National Informatics Centre.

"Gmail data of Indian users resides in other countries as the servers are located outside. Currently, we are looking to address this in the government domain, where there are large amounts of critical data," said J Satyanarayana, secretary in the department of electronics and information technology.

Snowden fallout

The move comes in the wake of revelations by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the US government had direct access to large amounts of personal data on the internet such as emails and chat messages from companies like Google, Facebook and Apple through a programme called PRISM.

Documents leaked by Snowden showed that NSA may have accessed network infrastructure in many countries, causing concerns of potential security threats and data breaches. Even as the new policy is being formulated, there has been no mention yet of how compliance will be ensured.

Several senior government officials in India, including ministers of state for communications & IT Milind Deora and Kruparani Killi, have their Gmail IDs listed in government portals as their official email.

A Google India spokeswoman said the company has not been informed about the ban, and hence it cannot comment on speculation. "Nothing is documented so far, so for us, it is still speculation," Google said in an email response.

A senior official in the IT department admitted on condition of anonymity that employees turn to service providers such as Gmail because of the ease of use compared with official email services, as well as the bureaucratic processes that govern creation of new accounts.

"You can just go and create an account in Gmail easily, whereas for a government account, you have to go through a process because we have to ensure that he is a genuine government user."

Last week, IT Minister Kapil Sibal said the new policy would require all government officials living abroad to use NIC servers that are directly linked to a server in India while accessing government email services. Sibal said there has been no evidence of the US accessing Internet data from India.

Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bangalore-based research firm Centre for Internet and Society, said he agrees with the government's decision to ban Gmail for official communication and that any official violating this needs to be punished.

"After Snowden's revelations, we can never be sure to what extent foreign governments are intercepting government emails," he said. Abraham, however, called the government's decision a "late reaction", as the use of Gmail and other free email services by bureaucrats has increased in the past.

"Use of official government email would also make it easier to achieve greater transparency and anti-corruption initiatives. Ministers, intelligence and law enforcement officials should not be allowed to use alternate email providers under any circumstance."

ASPI-CIS Partnership


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