The recent debacle around WhatsApp has raised one pertinent issue. Is the fact that the company doesn’t have servers in India unfair towards the consumer? The Indian government has, in the past, asked WhatsApp and other instant messaging (IM) platforms to create methods for the government to trace texts on the platform, but IMs have almost unanimously refused to create backdoors around encryption.
However, a recent development in text messaging technology may provide an answer to the government’s problems. Rich Communication Services (RCS) isn’t particularly new. In fact, it has been spoken about in global markets for a while now, but it has only just reached Indian shores.
RCS messages allow newer features, like read receipts, payments and more on SMS and work over a data network. Since they’re supported by operators, the data travels over an operator network, hence staying inside a country’s border and within the jurisdiction of its laws.
In messaging apps like Messenger, WhatsApp etc, the data travels through a company’s servers, thereby transcending the country’s borders and out of reach of our legal jurisdiction.
Rajdip Gupta, Group CEO, Route Mobile, suggests that this could make RCS a viable replacement for IM platforms here. Route Mobile is a cloud communication platform provider for over the top players (OTT) and mobile network operators (MNO).
Because it allows features from instant messaging platforms (like WhatsApp, Viber etc.) to be used on regular SMS, RCS has often been called SMS 2.0. It’s close to Apple’s iMessage for iPhones but not quite as advanced.
Having said that, RCS has another advantage for governments, which is also a distinct disadvantage for users. Unlike most IMs, RCS is not end-to-end encrypted, meaning the messages you send using this technology can be intercepted more easily.
Route Mobiles’ Gupta contested the lack of end-to-end encryption, saying, “Anything that’s going over a GSM (Global System for Mobile) band is secure enough. When the data goes over IP (Internet Protocol), it goes out of the country where the security aspect is a big point of concern,” he said.
Gupta said the fact that RCS is just a version of SMS should make it dependable and secure.
Security experts though disagree. “From a security perspective, we see the lack of end to end encryption as a challenge, compared to applications such as WhatsApp and other platforms like Telegram and Signal,” said Rahul Tyagi, co-founder of cybersecurity firm Lucideus.
“End to end encryption is essential as it is difficult to penetrate and ensures security starting from application vendor to the network provider and only the sender and receiver of the message can view the content. A consumer who is cautious about privacy and security will not want their messages to be viewed in between and with RCS, it is not that way!” he added.
Tyagi, however, said that RCS does have “standard security protocols” like Transport Layer Security and Internet Protocol Security. The first is the underlying technology behind the creation of HTTPS, while the other is “widely used by VPNs (Virtual Private Networks)”.
The biggest challenge for RCS globally has been operator support. Android-maker Google stepped in recently to rectify that. The company announced its Jibe Cloud platform, which would rollout internationally and handle RCS operations on Android phones. In fact, recent reports have indicated that RCS is now available on the Google Messages app in India.
Reports and Reddit posts indicate that Vodafone users in India can already use RCS features on the network. Reliance Jio also supports RCS.
The move from SMS to IMs by consumers has usually been credited to two things — better features on IMs and the fact that Internet messaging didn’t incur costs like SMS did. RCS, at least on paper, makes the ageing SMS platform better in terms of features, and given that most operators have made SMSes free in some way, it does seem to offer a feasible alternative to IMs.
Whether it indeed convinces users in India remains to be seen.
Published in Livemint: WhatsApp snooping: Is RCS answer to government’s localisation problems?