The casual bandying about of private and purportedly hacked e-mails by the media in the Lalit Modi controversy has spooked Raisina Hill with critical departments like the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), external affairs, home, defence and finance ministries growing rapidly averse to electronic communication for fear of being intercepted or hacked into.
Although intra government cautions are issued from time to time by CERT-IN (central government response team) to protect the integrity of the system from hackers, top government officials are staying away from e-mails, text messages or mobile conversations.
“Given that we really do not know the intrusive capabilities of foreign powers, one cannot be 100% confident about the integrity of the National Informatics Centre (nic.in) account through which the entire government is conducting official business,” said a top security official.
“Time and again NIC.in suggests that bureaucrats change the password in case their e-mail account is being accessed by one or two countries,” the official added.
While the Narendra Modi government is tight-lipped about the growing cybersecurity issue, the fact is that hardly any of the top officials in the PMO or MEA are sending messages through e-mails or even opening their private accounts for the fear of malware entering into the system.
“The plans for a paperless government has taken a hit with ministers and officials at the highest levels more comfortable in dealing with paper rather than e-mail,” said a senior official. The fact is that a majority of top Indian officials these days use smartphones without 3G services or even WhatsApp fearing malware intrusion.
The plan to tackle cyber-hacking may sound like it’s from the stone age but this is partly due to lack of technological upgradation of Indian counter-capabilities and the rapid advancement in the US, Europe and China.
“The Lalit Modi episode shows that e-mails are vulnerable to hacking by vested interests. Also, India needs very strong privacy laws and cybersecurity or else properly injected malware can bring the government to its knees,” said a South Block official.