investigators in India want the government to consider blocking Skype

Source October 3 2009 The Times of india

NEW DELHI: Intelligence agencies have asked the government to consider blocking Skype as operators of the popular global VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) engine are refusing to share the encryption code that prevents Indian investigators from intercepting conversations of suspected terrorists.

The Cabinet Committee on Security has accepted the recommendation in principle but has not set a date for initiating action. The urgency to track Skype calls stems from the fact that terrorists — as the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai showed — are increasingly using VoIP services. The shift to VoIP has been prompted by the growing ability of intelligence agencies to intercept mobile and other calls.

Like the BlackBerry service, VoIP operators send their signals under a specific code which makes it difficult for others to decipher. Sources said Skype has shared its encryption code with the US, China and other governments but is refusing to accept similar Indian requests.

Since Skype is not registered here, Indian authorities have been forced to mull the drastic option of blocking its gateways here. This, however, may not be entirely effective as Skype can route traffic through other service providers. The agencies feel blocking the gateways will at least serve as a signal to local service providers against carrying traffic from Skype or any other similar service provider which does not share the encryption code with the government.

Sections 4 and 5 of the Telegraph Act gives government the right to grant licence for any kind of telephony and also the right to intercept. Last year, government amended Section 69 of the Information Technology Act to empower itself to take over servers of Net and telecom service providers and demand the encryption code. This may still be no remedy against recalcitrant overseas service providers who usually have their servers abroad. Last year, the government had a similar run-in with Canada’s Research in Motion, BlackBerry makers and service providers, and the UAE-based satphone operator Thuraya.

Indian agencies are also keeping their fingers crossed, not sure whether the department of telecom — with a stake in sectoral growth — would like to lean on VoIP service providers on the issue of sharing encryption code. Besides, there’s also a feeling that the government would be wary of people’s response to the snapping of Skype. The free service is used by a vast majority of urban middle class Indians for communicating with families and friends spread across the world.

Last year, TRAI had sent a recommendation (with data from 2007), that Skype and Goggle should be asked to pay a licence fee, after being brought within the licence regime. However, government turned it down saying they were not based in India.

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