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Home » Internet » Facebook, Skype in govt sights

Facebook, Skype in govt sights

New Delhi, July 13: The Centre has asked Google, Facebook, Skype and other Internet and mobile-based communication services to open up their servers for scrutiny by the country’s security agencies.

Junior telecom minister Sachin Pilot said today that several social networking websites and Internet telephony companies had been asked to provide real-time access to messaging traffic. “Papers were exchanged months ago.… The discussions are on and we are looking to find a solution soon since it is a matter of national security,” Pilot said on a day three blasts rocked Mumbai.

Most of these websites and service providers use encryption keys to protect user privacy from hackers and snoops.

The Centre wants them to share the encryption keys so that they can access the data and track emails, messages and chatter on the airwaves to identify criminals who exchange coded messages.

Last year, the government had initiated talks with Canada-based Research in Motion (RIM), the makers of BlackBerry, asking it to allow the security agencies to trawl messages on its encrypted corporate email service. The move led to a standoff and the two sides are still trying to find a solution that will strike the right balance between security compulsions and privacy issues.

Sources in the department of telecommunications said intelligence agencies would need to build their own capabilities to intercept and interpret data that is exchanged using these services.

Security agencies contend that since they cannot monitor the data, it can pose a threat to the nation’s safety. “There is no short-cut solution to the data monitoring issue. National security is at stake and we will continue to try and persuade technology companies to provide solutions,” said a top official in the telecommunications department.

Some global companies such as Microsoft are developing tools to help intelligence agencies gain access to encrypted data.

Last month, Microsoft struck an $8.5-billion deal to acquire Skype. “A newly unveiled Microsoft patent reveals that the company is planning to install a tool in Skype that will allow law enforcement agencies and governments to monitor Skype communications,” said a technology expert who did not wish to be named.

The patent, which was filed in December 2009, details recording tools that will allow anyone with access to the tool to intercept, monitor, record and store the calls and instant messages that users send and receive using the voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service, he added.

Skype is essentially a free service that is used by a vast majority of urban middle-class Indians for communicating with families and friends spread across the world.

The tool required to tap data sent through Skype or Google Talk, a built-in chat service within Gmail, is different from the system which can monitor BlackBerry-type services, the technology expert said.

Research in Motion has already provided a solution for security agencies to monitor its messenger or chat services and Internet services. It has, however, contended that it “has no ability to read the encrypted information and has no master key or backdoor key to allow access” to corporate emails, which is a “fundamentally important security feature” for its enterprise clients.

Last year, Nokia’s push email service for companies and consumers had also come under the home ministry’s radar.

To allay the government’s security concerns, the Finnish handset maker had agreed to set up an enterprise server in India to allow intelligence agencies monitor its push email services.

Security experts, however, said that providing greater access to read and intercept mobile and online communications will jeopardise the security of data.

“If you create a backdoor for the government to access encrypted data, then a hacker also has access to that data,” said Gerhard Watzinger, executive vice-president (corp strategy and business development), McAfee.

The government is also in the process of setting up a centralised communication monitoring agency, which would be capable of monitoring and intercepting all communication traffic including satellite, wireline, wireless, Internet, email and VoIP.

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