Sandes and Samvad: Two new apps govt is testing as alternative to WhatsApp

The idea, according to people in the know, is to have a secure instant messaging system for government use
After years of contemplation and controversies, the Indian government is finally testing not one, but two messaging platforms for its internal communication. 

Sandes and Samvad are two apps that have been built by different departments of the government and are currently being tested before a final rollout happens. 

The idea, according to people in the know, is to have a secure instant messaging system for government use, and not rely on external, especially foreign owned apps such as WhatsApp, Signal and so on. 

Sandes is being developed by the National Informatics Centre, the technology infrastructure arm of the government under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). Sandes is available for download in the Apple App Store, but seems to have been taken off the Google Play Store after being available there for a few days. 

Samvad, on the other hand, is not yet available to the public and is being developed by the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT), under the Ministry of Communications. 

"The idea is to have secure communications for government employees. Both the apps are being tested at present but there are no concrete plans as yet. We may open one for the public and one for official use, or keep both for use by officials, but these are just possibilities," said a person aware of the plans around the apps. 

Sandes allows encrypted messages, chat in a group or access to government teams. Once you download the app, it lets you know that you can "connect with verified government colleagues and officers securely", "auto delete encrypted messages and mark them confidential. Data is protected by highest security protocol". 

“As per provisions of Public Records Act and Official Secrets Act it is necessary to provide a safe digital network for government officials. Creating and opening an app for private users is an aspect that needs to be checked for its commercial viability,” said Virag Gupta, lawyer who argued KN Govindacharya matter before Delhi High Court after which the social media policy for government officials was notified.

The “Framework & Guidelines for use of social media for government organisations” formulated by MeitY said government agencies can engage in social media either by making use of existing external platforms or by creating their own communication platforms.

Looking for a Sandes?

While these are issues that will become clearer with time, Sandes in its test version has some interesting features, which were reviewed by Business Standard.

An interesting bit is the use of what the app developers call "Gimoji" or government emojis. 

So, instead of a smile, laugh, cry or the usual set of emojis (which can also be used in chats), the app has emojis like "approved", "Issue today", "re-examine", "explanation required", "release press note" and so on. 

Messages can be tagged as "Confidential", "Priority" or "Auto delete".

The app, unlike WhatsApp, does not show everyone using the app, but only government employees who are on Sandes. 

The look and feel are very similar to the other messaging app Signal, and there is an option to join Groups, and provide feedback on the app. 

Login is allowed through email or mobile number, and a one-time password is sent to whichever mode the user enters.

Apprehensions around the use of WhatsApp, which is most widely used for person-to-person communication, have been there for the last couple of years at least. Recently, furore over a proposed change to its existing privacy policy led the Facebook-owned app to delay the enforcement of the update. 

MeitY had called upon WhatsApp in January to withdraw its new privacy policy, saying the platform’s proposed changes “make invasive and precise inferences about users”. In a letter to the social network, MeitY asked WhatsApp to clarify issues related to its “privacy and data transfer and sharing policies, and general business practices”. 


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