Airtel backs out of spy code controversy between Indian techie and Israeli firm

In the latest instance of a big company trying to silence the common man, an Indian techie who exposed an Israeli firm which has been helping Airtel to ‘spy’ on users and make money from them without their permission, has been threatened with a criminal lawsuit. The Bengaluru-based programmer and activist Thejesh GN, has demanded an apology from Flash Networks, the firm attempting to strong-arm him into silence.

Meanwhile, Airtel which has been in trouble quite regularly over the past few months with regards to its net neutrality-violating actions, has distanced itself from the drama. It claims to have nothing to do with the cease and desist letter mailed to Thejesh on June 8. Thejesh’s lawyer Lawrence Liang, sent a legal notice to Flash Networks asking for an unconditional apology for violating his client’s privacy as well as inserting a malicious code into his website. It all began when the programmer found his site to be very slow on Airtel 3G even though it was functioning properly on his broadband connection.

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Being an experienced programmer, he did a little digging and discovered an unauthorized bit of code including a script known as Anchor.js to be the cause of the problem. Initially, Thejesh thought it was someone trying to hack his website or inject malicious software into it. Apparently an iframe (a widely used HTML element, the one Google Adsense depends on to display banner ads on third party websites) was being embedded into Thejesh’s blog and thus slowing it down. Google Search is not very kind on sites which offer a sluggish mobile experience. This is just one of the many problems with Airtel’s and Flash Networks’ villainous partnership.

Getting back to the day Thejesh uncovered the issue, he took screenshots of his website with JavaScript embedded, checked to see if the source of the malicious code was Airtel and found his suspicion to be true. He proceeded to post his findings on GitHub since Airtel was clearly seen to be inserting the script into his website illegally. Thejesh’s actions haven’t breached the Copyright law in India. Flash Networks supposedly has Vodafone too as a client. As if it’s not bad enough that the biggest telecom company in the country thinks it’s above the law and has no moral obligation towards its customers. Well, no one can say they’re surprised.

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Flash Networks describes itself as a provider of mobile Internet optimization and monetization solutions, assisting operators to boost their network speeds. It certainly doesn’t look like Airtel users are benefiting from decent quality 3G services, something even we can attest to. Surfing the web on the company’s 3G network is painfully slow even in Mumbai. So how exactly is the Israeli firm helping Airtel? Injecting code into web pages misrepresents them unlawfully, endangers user privacy and security, and also violates net neutrality. It’s high time the TRAI and other telecom authorities intervened in this matter.