Are Public Mail Systems a Danger in Developing Countries?

Over the past two years I’ve interviewed dozens of government ICT managers in countries throughout Asia, the Caribbean, and Europe.  One of the surprising items collected during the interviews is the large number of government employees – some at the highest levels, using public mail systems for their professional communications.

While this might appear as a non-issue with some, others might find it both a security issue (by using a foreign commercial company to process and store government correspondence), as well as an identity issue (by using an XXX@gmail.com or XXX@yahoo.com ) while communicating with a government employee or official.

Reasons provided in interviews concluded the reason why government employees are using commercial email systems include:

  • Lack of timely provisioning by government ICT managers
  • Concerns over lack of privacy within a government-managed email system
  • Desire to work from home or while mobile, and the government system does not support remote or web access to email (or the perception this is the case)
  • Actual mail system performance is better on public systems than internal government-operated systems
  • Government ICT systems have a high internal transfer cost, even for simple utilities such as email

and so on.

When pressed further, many were not aware of the risk that government correspondence processed through public systems potentially resulted in images being stored on storage systems probably located in other countries.  Depending on the country, that email image could easily be provided to foreign law enforcement agencies under lawful warrants – thus exposing potentially sensitive information for exploitation by a foreign government.

Are Public Email Accounts Bad?

Not at all.  Most of us use at least one personal email address on a public mail system, some many addresses.  Public systems allow on-demand user creation of accounts, and if desired allow individuals to create anonymous identities for use when using other social media or public networks. 

Public addresses can separate an individual’s online identity from their “real world” identity, allowing higher levels of privacy any anonymous participation in social media or other activities where the user wishes to not have their full identity revealed.

The addresses are also quite simple to use, cost nothing, and are in use around the world.

Governments are also starting to make better use of commercial or public email outsourcing, with the City of Los Angeles being one of the more well-known projects.  The City of LA has service level agreements with Google (their outsource company), assuring security an confidentiality, as well as operational service levels. 

This is no doubt going to be a continuing trend, with public private partnerships (PPPs) relieving government users from the burden of infrastructure and some applications management.  With the US CIO Vivek Kundra aggressively pushing the national data center consolidation and cloud computing agenda, the move towards hosted or SaaS applications will increase.

Many benefits here as well, including:

  1. Hosted mail systems may keep an image of mail in storage – much more secure than if an individual PC loses single images of mail from a POP server
  2. Access from any Internet connected workstation or computer (of course assuming good passwords and security)
  3. Standardization among organizational user (both for mail formatting and client use)
  4. Cheaper operating costs

To address recent budget and human resource challenges, the City of Orlando moved its e-mail and productivity solution to the cloud (application and cloud  hosting services provided by Google).  The City has realized a 65 percent reduction in e-mail costs and provided additional features to increase the productivity of workers. (CIO Council, State of Public sector Cloud Computing)

For developing countries this is probably a good thing – have all the features and services of the best in class email systems, while significantly reducing the cost and burden of developing physical data center facilities.

But for the meantime, as that strategy and vision is defined, the use of public or cloud hosted email services in many developing countries in one of convenience.  We will only hope that commercial email providers safeguard data processed by government user’s personal accounts, used for communicating all levels of government information, with the same service level agreements offered large users such as the City of LA or City of Orlando.

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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