A series of media reports indicate that the Indian Government is concerned about a certain service, that goes by the name of Tiger Text, which allows users to send and receive messages privately and offers them the ability to permanently delete them from the receiving party as well as from the Tiger Text servers, after they’ve been read. The Home Ministry’s Internet Security wing has reportedly written a letter to the Department of Telecom, that it should ask all mobile operators to make arrangements to intercept the Tiger Text service, before allowing it, so that legal enforcement agencies can monitor messages through the service, reports The Hindu. Note that Tiger Text provides this service through a set of cross-platform apps, that both parties need to have installed in order to use the service.
What the Government does not (judging by the reports) appear to understand here is, that this service is simply a peer to peer Instant Messaging solution, that relies on data connectivity. The messages that go through the service do not by-pass through mobile operators, and are stored on internet servers of the provider. Also, operators do not offer the service on their own, and the applications are available on the app stores controlled by phone hardware and software manufactures like Apple, Google, RIM and Microsoft.
What About Other P2P IM Services?
There are a lot of similar services that exist, which more or less work in the same way, including the popular WhatsApp, which is being aggressively promoted by Nokia. Another popular application is LiveProfile. So why single out Tiger Text?
Many messaging services compete with RIM’s proprietary P2P messaging platform BlackBerry Messenger or BBM. Unlike BBM, apps like WhatsApp or Tiger Text are cross platform, and allow users on different mobile platforms to communicate with each other. They need users to register through their mobile numbers, and hence allow other users to find them using it as User IDs. WhatsApp even verifies the user’s number through a One Time Password.
These services also offer integration with the handset’s phonebook, in order to make the experience as close to text messaging, as possible. One more thing that differentiates them from BlackBerry’s BBM is the fact that they work on a normal GPRS/3G or WiFi connection. BBM on the other hand requires the activation of a specialized BlackBerry data service plan such as BIS or BES, and is integrated at the operator’s end.
So, in a way services like Tiger Text work like a usual IM client, such as Google Talk or Yahoo Messenger. To intercept the messages the Government would either need to ask telecom providers or ISPs to do something about them, or approach each service provider for the data. The big question here is, would all of this be feasible?
Is Interception Feasible?
As a user of WhatsApp, when I’m at home or office, all my messages are routed through a WiFi connection, and when I’m outside these go through my Mobile operator’s 3G connection. The office has an MTNL broadband connection, while my home has an Airtel one. On my phone I use Vodafone. So the Government will need to ask all three to intercept these messages.
Now if it decides to go behind every company that makes IM apps, the list will be long and a bigger question arises, what all will it like to intercept? Apple has just unveiled iMessage, its inter-device messaging platform, which allows users of its iOS based devices to send each other encrypted messages. Yes, you heard it right ‘ENCRYPTED’. So the most scary alternative would be to put a blanket ban. However, I also wonder what happens to IM messaging features integrated into Social Networking apps such as Facebook and Twitter. The next thing you know, the Government might be interested to intercept your DMs (Direct Messages).
We’d again like to highlight, that National Security is important, but what about the individual’s privacy, and checks and balances to prevent misuse of access to information? Don’t we need stronger privacy laws?