The government is testing a prototype of an Indian equivalent of popular messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, for secure internal use. Codenamed GIMS or Government Instant Messaging System, the platform is in the pilot testing stage across some states, including Odisha — and is learnt to have been released to the Indian Navy to be tried out on trial basis.
Designed and developed by the Kerala unit of National Informatics Centre (NIC), GIMS is being packaged for employees of Central and state government departments and organisations for intra and inter organisation communications.
It is being developed as a secure Indian alternative without the security concerns attached with apps hosted abroad or those owned by foreign entities. Like WhatsApp, GIMS employs end-to-end encryption for one-to-one messaging.
The launch of the new app comes amid the recent controversy over the WhatsApp breach after The Indian Express first reported that some Indian users’ mobile devices were targeted through a spyware called Pegasus.
GIMS is being touted as a safer bet as the platform has been developed in India, the server hosting it is installed within the country and the information stored would be in government-based cloud — NIC-operated data centres that are only meant for captive use by the government and its departments.
The trial started with NIC employees using it internally, before expanding it to some central government agencies, including the finance department of Odisha and the Navy.
A GIMS Portal is also being simultaneously developed for administration and monitoring of the platform, government officials said.
The platform is adaptable to both central and state government organisations, with an iOS version of GIMS released for trial in the first week of September 2019, compatible with iOS Version 11 and above, and an Android version that works with Kitkat (Android 4.4.4) and above.
Sources said the Odisha Finance Department had cleared plans to use GIMS in the department on pilot basis. State officials are learnt to have been asked to install GIMS and start using it since end-September, and NIC is learnt to have formed a group of all Finance department officials of the state so that group interactions can be tested.
Facebook-owned WhatsApp has been the default instant messaging platform among a majority of government departments and organisations. But tax department officers and those with enforcement agencies are reported to be more inclined to use Telegram (London-headquartered cloud-based instant messaging and voice over IP service), and now increasingly Signal (the Mountain View, California-headquartered cross-platform encrypted messaging service).
Besides one-to-one messaging and group messaging, there are specific provisions in GIMS for documents and media sharing in keeping with the hierarchies in the government system.
According to WhatsApp, the Pegasus spyware was developed by Israel-based NSO Group and it attempted to breach mobile phones of a possible 1,400 users globally, including 121 from India.
Based on reports on alleged snooping of mobile devices of Indian citizens through WhatsApp using Pegasus, CERT-In (Indian Computer Emergency Response Team) has said it had sought submission of relevant details and information from WhatsApp and NSO group.
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