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PMO 'relies' on Hotmail

ssparikshya

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NEW DELHI: After a triple bombing in Mumbai killed 21 people last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office issued a statement condemning the terrorist attacks -- from a Microsoft Corp Hotmail address.

Singh's staff's use of a free e-mail account is typical of most government workers, who log into Hotmail, Google Inc's Gmail and Yahoo! Inc's e-mail to conduct official business. They also list those addresses on agency websites and business cards.

Bureaucrats avoid the government system because it covers only 10 percent of federal employees, doesn't include the latest security patches and can't be accessed via India's 840 million mobile-phone connections. That preference for free e-mail accounts threatens the safety and veracity of government information because the data is moving through computer servers outside India, cybersecurity experts said.

"It's a recipe for disaster," said Pawan 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, not Hotmail or Yahoo."

Tata Consultancy, Infosys
The Ministry of Commerce sends market-moving inflation data via a Gmail account, and the Indian Air Force uses another to send media updates on competitive bidding for an $11 billion combat-jet programme. After a July 6 interview with Bloomberg News, Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati handed out Hotmail and Gmail addresses as the best ways to contact him.

Public servants shun an e-mail system in a nation with an $88.1 billion IT industry employing 2.5 million workers, making India the world's largest outsourcing destination. The nation's three biggest IT companies -- Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS), Infosys Ltd and Wipro Ltd -- count Deutsche Bank AG and Citigroup Inc among their clients.

The government system created by the New Delhi-based National Informatics Center usually requires an Internet- connected computer, and the World Bank said last year that fewer than 5 percent of Indians have ever used the Internet. Indians typically use smartphones to access e-mail.

Only senior government officials have smartphone access to federal e-mail, and a security precaution prevents them from sending messages to other NIC addresses, according to the NIC website.

Hacking worries
BK Gairola, the director general of the NIC, did not respond to several phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment. "It certainly makes sense that lots of people around India use Hotmail for all sorts of e-mail, both official and personal," Microsoft's India unit said in an e-mail. "Hotmail is convenient, secure and easily accessible." Google's Gurgaon-based spokeswoman, Paroma Chowdhury, declined to comment.

A week before the terrorist attacks, Singh's office used Hotmail to send condolences to the families of 65 people killed in a train derailment.

'Alarming' situation
Singh's spokesman, Harish Khare, did not respond to an email sent to his government account seeking comment. Using the government system requires going through NIC's website. During the past decade, NIC created about 300,000 e-mail accounts for India's 3.1 million federal employees to access through secure servers, said Siba Charan Pradhan, who is in charge of the messaging systems and anti-virus unit at NIC.

India's domestic Intelligence Bureau issued a directive saying government workers must use official e-mail accounts, Pradhan said.

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