iMessage may slip past police monitoring

iMessage may slip past police monitoring

Summary: Apple's new iMessage application, which bypasses carrier SMS services in favour of data, raises questions about police ability to intercept messages, according to James Espie, product manager for applications at Vodafone.

TOPICS: Security, Telcos

Apple's new iMessage application, which bypasses carrier SMS services in favour of data, raises questions about police ability to intercept messages, according to James Espie, product manager for applications at Vodafone.

iMessage is a new application in iOS 5 that will allow iPhone or iPad users to message each other over data networks rather than using their carrier-based SMS service.

As companies such as Apple and Skype increasingly take on functions that were traditionally the domain of telcos, they were not taking on the same regulatory obligations as telcos, Espie said at the Planet of the Apps conference in Sydney today.

"What we're seeing as carriers is that the over-the-top players are obviously just changing the playing field. Where previously it was the realm of a small number of players and regulation was designed to capture the activity of those players, now you've got a whole bunch of other people doing quite similar things, but then the regulation is not designed to cover that," he said.

"On our networks, we're obliged to [provide] an intercept capability for the police and what have you," he added. "[For] Skype, that's pure [internet protocol] so there's no intercept there."

The Department of the Attorney-General indicated that the current Telecommunications Act did include some internet communications monitoring provisions.

"Interception warrants permit the lawful interception of communications passing over the Australian telecommunications network, including internet communications," the department said.

The Australian Federal Police told ZDNet Australia that the High Tech Crimes Operations division was designed specifically to deal with emerging technologies.

"The AFP's High Tech Crime Operations (HTCO) portfolio provides a highly technical investigative capability for the AFP by anticipating and identifying emerging technology challenges for law enforcement and to develop response strategies for these challenges through engaging with domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies, government, industry, academia and the public. The AFP's HTCO function has a strong focus on research, development, education, awareness, prevention."

Although Apple would not fall under typical telecommunications regulation, in Apple's privacy policy, the company says it may provide user information to law enforcement as required.

It may be necessary — by law, legal process, litigation, and/or requests from public and governmental authorities within or outside your country of residence — for Apple to disclose your personal information. We may also disclose information about you if we determine that for purposes of national security, law enforcement, or other issues of public importance, disclosure is necessary or appropriate.

We may also disclose information about you if we determine that disclosure is reasonably necessary to enforce our terms and conditions or protect our operations or users. Additionally, in the event of a reorganisation, merger, or sale we may transfer any and all personal information we collect to the relevant third party.

In addition to causing headaches for law enforcement, apps that take on traditional telco roles were also causing companies problems for revenue, Espie said, with the function of content selling moving from telcos to the manufacturer or operating system developer.

"You can't sell [smartphone owners] any content, and that puts a massive hole in your ability to drive any revenue from those customers," he said, adding that Apple didn't seem to be concerned about it.

"'Thank you for your network but actually your old pricing paradigm now has a big hole in it'," he said.

As the transactions in apps tend to be fairly low in price, the only apps that could be successful are the ones that sell on a global scale, he said. This would limit what telcos in Australia could do.

"In the US, the carriers are talking about doing their own stores, but each of the US carriers has a user base that is larger than the entire Australian population, so that's not something we can play in," he said.

As more functions move from the network operator to companies like Apple or Skype, telcos are increasingly limited in how they can differentiate themselves from their competitors, he said.

"The network carriage facility is our primary function, but if you're looking for competitive advantage that's not really going to cover it — unless you're Telstra and then you can say 'our network is better than yours'," he said.

A major point of difference lies in customer service, he said, and that the development of apps around customer service would aid in this differentiation.

Updated at 3:29pm 27 October 2011: Added detail on Apple policy

Topics: Security, Telcos


Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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  • "apps that take on traditional telco roles were also causing companies problems for revenue" Espie said. Now isn't that interesting? The traditional telco role is to sell access to a connection - be it Telegraph, Telephone or Internet. It is the telcos that have moved into the area of content and failed! Just concentrate on offering a reliable and accessible CONNECTION service. James Espie should ensure his company is providing the basics first - like a mobile service that doesn't drop out or oversubscribed!
  • US companies (telco or IT) have to provide access to government bodies such as the NSA who share data with DSD in Australia, so your messages through iMessage could be tracked very easily. I think it's more probable that Mr Espie is throwing up FUD at something that costs him revenue.
    • I'm waiting for more of the telcos to speak up about it actually. iMessage would have the potential to cut into their revenue quite dramatically.

      I think the saving grace for Australian telcos is that SMS is unlimited on a lot of plans now. It will still be interesting to see if this has a dent on the SMS figures though.
      Josh Taylor
      • Telcos are only being vocal about it as they are trying to protect their revenues rather than represent the true cost of sending ~140Bs of data.

        Considering SMS is generally bundled into "capped" plans I don't see how they are loosing out either. You've already paid for the connection and it will now be accounted for on a different part of your bill.

        Surely the interception of traffic is a non issue as well. IM applications on fixed line services have been around for years and I would expect that technically and lawfully they would be similar to iMessage.
  • Just sounds like Mr Espie is defending something no one is attacking.
    How is the iMessage service differs from email, twitter and Facebook from a laws' perpective?
    No one is above the law, but Mr Espie is making sound like Apple Inc is...
  • What is the big deal here? Anyone with some minimal technical knowledge can create an application that can allow a group of collaborating users to securely exchange information. It may just take few hours to do that.