Business

Hit by leaks, wary FinMin blocks non-govt sites

The finance ministry has blocked all non-government websites including email services, social media and news websites, for junior staff after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) began investigating leaks of confidential documents related to foreign investment proposals.

All websites with private domains have been blocked for officers up to the rank of director or equivalent. The ban covers deputy secretaries, under-secretaries, deputy directors, joint directors, deputy economic advisors, officers on special duties and below. Only government websites, primarily with ‘.nic.in’ or ‘.gov.in’ domains, are accessible. Officials with ranks of joint secretary and above would still be able to access non-government websites.

When an official tried opening this paper’s website, www.business-standard.com, the browser returned the message: “Blocked by Ministry of Finance, Category: N/A, Reason: by_other.”

Sources said the move was a fallout of the arrests made by CBI last week and earlier this week related to leak of finance ministry documents. The ban has been in force since last Friday, a day after CBI made its first arrests.

In fact, officials fear this might set a precedent for other ministries. Sources said officers in other departments had also been informally told to stop accessing sites like Google email, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A formal notification restricting access to non-government sites is likely soon to all economic and infrastructure ministries.

However, government officials, including those not yet affected by the web blockade, seem uncertain about what such a ban could achieve. 

“Officers still have their smartphones, home computers or laptops to access personal mail, social media and other websites. It is difficult to understand what purpose this will achieve,” an official said.

It is not yet known how long these restrictions will last.

On March 12, CBI arrested three people, including Khemchand Gandhi, a Mumbai-based chartered accountant, and two finance ministry officials, Lala Ram Sharma (section officer in the department of economic affairs) and Ashok Kumar Singh (under-secretary in the department of disinvestment), for allegedly selling documents related to proposals before the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB), which were finally passed on to corporate houses.

Following that, CBI also summoned a senior Reliance Industries official and another chartered accountant on their suspected relations with those arrested. The agency also arrested an upper division clerk, Daljeet Singh, in the department of industrial policy and promotion under the commerce ministry.

An official of PricewaterhouseCoopers has been questioned regarding the leaks. Among the foreign investment proposal-related documents leaked were also papers related to the ~2,058 crore Jet-Etihad deal.

There have been several instances in the past when government officials have been advised to use official email addresses, though these advisories have never extended beyond emails and social networks. However, the use of private email services continues to be rampant, including by Union ministers.

The previous advisories were sparked by revelations of large-scale snooping by US National Security Agency into the networks of technology companies that have large number of users in India.

The government is also working on an email policy that will spell out the dos and don’ts for electronic communication for its employees.