Airtel has been accused of spying on its 3G internet subscribers by using programming from an Israel-based firm that offers monetisation solutions to telecom operators round the world.
The snooping came to light on June 3, when Bengaluru-based programmer Thejesh GN tweeted that Airtel was injecting lines of code into users' browsing sessions over its 3G network without their knowledge.
The development has angered consumers, coming in the wake of widespread criticism for the Airtel Zero scheme that users and activists said violated net neutrality.
Using a web-based IP tracker, Thejesh was able to confirm that the code was originating from an IP address that belonged to Bharti Airtel.
Thejesh dug further and revealed that Airtel had partnered with Ericsson, which in turn was using the services of Israel-based Flash Networks to inject the code into web pages that users were browsing.
He published the code to GitHub, a web-based code repository, and promptly received a cease and desist legal notice on June 8 from Flash Networks for exposing proprietary code. The firm contended that his action was a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act.
And here, an Israeli co. inserting code surrepticiously into Indian's browsers, threatening Indians under IPC. pic.twitter.com/JrPNJV9iUL— Rohin Dharmakumar (@r0h1n) June 9, 2015
Thejesh’s files on GitHub too were taken down under the US Digital Millenium Copyright Act.
Experts contend that Airtel is using the Israeli firm’s code to make money by using the consumer’s browsing history.
Flash Networks describes itself on its website as the "global leader of mobile Internet optimization and monetization solutions, enables operators to boost network speed, optimize video and web traffic, and generate over-the-top revenues from the mobile Internet".
In reaction, Airtel issued a statement saying that the code is part of a tool it is working on to help users keep track of their data consumption but has now stopped using it.
According to Rohin Dharmakumar, a Bengaluru-based startup founder, Flash Networks enables mobile operaters to intercept their subscriber's browsing and insert their own content or advertisements.
In layperson terms, Flash Networks enables mobile operators to intercept their subscriber's browsing, and insert their own content/ads.— Rohin Dharmakumar (@r0h1n) June 9, 2015
Experts said if this is true, Airtel is guilty of violating the privacy of its users by spying on their online behaviour. When questioned about this, an Airtel spokesperson said: "This is a standard solution deployed by telcos globally to help their customers keep track of their data usage in terms of mega bytes used. It is therefore meant to improve customer experience and empower them to manage their usage.
“One of our network vendor partners has piloted this solution through a third party to help customers understand their data consumption in terms of volume of data used. As a responsible corporate, we have the highest regard for customer privacy and we follow a policy of zero tolerance with regard to the confidentiality of customer data.”