After a triple bombing in Mumbai killed 21 people on July 13, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office issued a statement condemning the terrorist attacks—from a Hotmail address.
Many federal employees use free e-mail accounts from Microsoft, Google, or Yahoo! instead of official ones to conduct business and even to send out market-moving information. They prefer the private accounts because of the government communications network’s shortcomings. To some cyber-law and cyber-security experts, the reliance on nonofficial services is risky, not to mention embarrassing. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” says Pavan Duggal, a New Delhi lawyer who argues information-technology cases before India’s Supreme Court. “It’s really quite amazing that, as a nation, we haven’t yet woken up to the idea that sensitive government information should be shared through secure channels,” instead of private accounts.
Employees shun the government system, created by the state-run National Informatics Center, in part because it allows smartphone access only for senior officials. Indians typically check e-mail on mobile devices, but to use official accounts they must log in through NIC’s website from a PC. That’s difficult for those in remote parts of India where connections are spotty and slow. Commercial alternatives like Hotmail all offer mobile access.
NIC’s system is also far from comprehensive. Because of bureaucratic delays, the agency has created about 300,000 secure e-mail accounts, covering just 10 percent of India’s 3.1 million federal employees, according to Siba Charan Pradhan, who is in charge of the messaging systems and the antivirus unit at NIC. As a result, many government workers share accounts and passwords. B.K. Gairola, the director general of the NIC, did not respond to several phone calls and an e-mail seeking requests for comment.
As a workaround, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry sends out inflation data via a Gmail account, and the Indian Air Force uses another free e-mail service to send media updates on competitive bidding for an $11 billion combat-jet program. After an interview with reporters, Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati handed out Hotmail and Gmail addresses as the best ways to contact him. On the contact page for Ministry of Environment and Forests employees, the listed addresses are all Hotmail and Gmail accounts.
E-mails sent from free accounts move through and can be stored on servers outside India. That presents legal problems, says Duggal, the IT lawyer. If an account is hacked, Indian law enforcement may not have the jurisdiction to investigate. And India’s Supreme Court has said in several cases that it doesn’t trust government statements or data sent from unofficial accounts, since it’s difficult to verify the sender’s identity. “That starts giving the opposite end the opportunity to stand and challenge” the information in court, says Duggal.
It also could be a security risk. “There is a massive amount of leakage in the government sector,” says Rakshit Tandon, a consultant with the Internet & Mobile Association of India, an industry group. The organization has held workshops on cyber security with about 5,000 government officials. “The use of private e-mail accounts needs to be stopped, once and for all,” he says. “It’s quite alarming and sad that this is the situation in a country where the private-sector IT companies are so advanced.”