Skype-ing in troubled times

Skype-ing in troubled times
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First Published: Tue, Sep 07 2010. 09 12 PM IST

Updated: Tue, Sep 07 2010. 09 12 PM IST
I have been using Skype from the month it was launched in 2003. Our teenage son had just left home to study in the US and Skype was, in one word, a godsend. Without it, our phone bill would have gone through the roof.
In the beginning there was no video on Skype: We could talk but we couldn’t see each other. When Skype introduced video chats it added a new dimension: Often, the whole family would gather around the PC.
When our son came home during summer and winter breaks, he would Skype his college friends scattered across many continents. One of them was in Pakistan. They would talk for hours. I often wondered if it would have been possible for them to talk on a mobile or a landline phone without someone on either side of the border getting suspicious and tapping into their conversation.
They couldn’t tap a Skype conversation because calls are encrypted for privacy. In an encrypted network, the data is converted into a code to prevent unauthorized access. Now the Indian government wants “lawful access to data” from BlackBerry, Google (for Gmail) and Skype. This access, they say, is vital in the fight against terrorists who may use encrypted networks to communicate.
BlackBerry’s emailing and messaging service is encrypted: It acts as a private virtual network among a group of people. A third party cannot monitor this traffic. India has asked Research In Motion (RIM), the Canada-based makers of BlackBerry, to set up a server here so that if need be, it can tap into this encrypted data. RIM has 51 days to comply with the government order. If they don’t, the government will ban the extremely popular emailing and messaging service.
Under the scanner: Will BlackBerry be able to to meet the deadline and avoid the ban in India?
I met a young lady who is among BlackBerry’s 1.1 million users in the country. She’s just finished college and is yet to find a job. So her phone is not linked to any corporate network. She said the “best thing” about her BlackBerry is the messaging service that allows her to send free messages to any other BlackBerry user. She also said that she would give up her smartphone if the government bans this service.
Across the world, people are increasingly using the Web to communicate, because it’s convenient and saves money. Half a billion people use Skype, which introduced a 10-way video call facility last week. Which means if you have nine friends in different parts of the world, all of you can video chat for as long as you like—and for free.
When I send a text message to my friends in the US, I send it on their Google Voice number. It’s a single number that connects all their phones (mobile, home, work, etc.). You can also call on that number. If they don’t answer, the person calling can leave a voice message, which Google transcribes to text and sends to their email account.
Around the time India sent Google a notice, the search engine giant launched a new phone service: If you live in the US and have a Gmail account, you can call any type of phone directly from your browser. A call to India is 6 cents (lessthan Rs3) against an average of 10 cents charged by a US mobile company.
I am told if you are tech savvy, you can access the Gmail phone service in India through what they call a VPN, or a virtual private network. It’s not rocket science. I have seen people in Delhi watch the latest movies from Netflix, the popular US movie rental and online streaming company, through a VPN. People on the move use VPN to log into their company networks. It’s private and secure. Students use it all the time to connect to their campus networks.
The government says in addition to BlackBerry and Skype, it also wants to get access to VPN services. That’s a lot of technologies to monitor and I hope we have the expertise for that.
I agree that if the issue is individual privacy versus national security, the latter must take precedence over the former. But I also hope that Skype and BlackBerry will strike a deal to work in India so that I can have my Skype and the young lady her BlackBerry.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at thesmartlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Sep 07 2010. 09 12 PM IST