Tuesday, 4 September 2007

GPhone Cometh


It finally looks like Google's GPhone might be a reality sometime soon. The Wall Street Journal carried an article on this last month, brushing away this long rumor and replacing this as fact, or perhaps making this a stronger longer rumor - depends on how you look at it.

Sure, if the product is coming out of Google, its definitely going to be desirable. However, whats interesting to note here, is who Google expects to pay for the calls you make using the GPhone. According to a source on Pocket-lint, they may be free, just like everything else Google offers...

"Google even envisions a phone service one day that is free of monthly subscription charges and supported entirely through ad revenue"

In other words, the price of using the GPhone could just be a minor invasion of privacy - a little like GMail.

According to reports on the internet, the GPhone could be available early next year. So if you were planning to get one for this Diwali, it might be more worthwhile to opt for a Nokia instead. I'm told their BL-5C equipped handsets are quite a blast, and you could end up saving a fortune on Diwali firecrackers too.

10 Questions and Answers About Google Phone (aka GPhone)

Monday, 3 September 2007

Software errors: A crash course

Just how much damage can a small software error do?

The costliest software error till date was the explosion of the unmanned Ariane 5 rocket about 37 seconds after lift-off on the morning of June 4, 1996.

This was its maiden flight, and the rocket was carrying 4 uninsured payloads worth about US$370 million. The mission critical Ariane 5 project itself took 10 years to develop at the cost of a whopping US$7 billion.

Apparently, it was blind software reuse that caused the problem, and sticking to the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" syndrome. An excerpt from a study on evolutionary design by the US Department of Homeland Security explains it well.

"The Ariane 5’s flight control software reused design specifications and code from its highly successful predecessor, the Ariane 4 launch vehicle. In particular, one of the on-board modules, the Inertial Reference System, performed a data conversion of a 64-bit floating point value related to the horizontal velocity of the rocket and attempted to place the result into a 16-bit signed integer variable. This computation had never caused a problem with the Ariane 4, but the more aggressive flight path and much faster acceleration of the Ariane 5 produced a higher horizontal velocity and a corresponding data value that was too large for the 16-bit signed integer variable, causing an arithmetic overflow. A redundant backup process used the same software and failed in the same manner. The Inertial Reference System then generated some diagnostic output that was incorrectly interpreted as flight control data by other portions of the flight control system. Based on this faulty interpretation, the flight control system took actions that led to the self-destruction of the rocket."

Wired has a list of 'History's worst software bugs' here.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Report of the investigation into the UK visa breach

The results of the two-month independent investigation into security breaches of the UK visa application process from India, Nigeria and Russia were published towards the end of July.

The full report is available here (currently archived, see Update below). There were also articles by The Register and The Observer in the UK media that covered the publication of this report. In India, there was no media coverage that I am aware of.

The excellent and very comprehensive report speaks for itself, and I would recommend it as good holiday reading if you're a fan of non-fictional tragic comedies spanning multiple continents. Thats probably exactly what the UK Members of Parliament did, taking a copy of the report with them as they broke off for a 11 week summer recess shortly after it was presented in Parliament.

In the limited time provided, I thought that the appointed Independent Investigator prepared quite a detailed and thorough report. The only striking omission I noticed was any plausible explanation as to why this breach wasn't reported by more applicants considering that this website had such fundamental flaws and left vulnerable for such a long duration of time. A little research into the Indian psyche, perhaps by way of interviews with applicants would have shown that no right thinking, progressive, frequent-flying, peace-loving Indian would ever want to bite the hand that stamps their visa.

I even know individuals in India who would consider themselves famous if their personal details were exposed online! Such is the scale of ignorance towards identity abuse here.

Update: The link for the full report isn't available on the FCO website any longer and claims to be moved to the 'National Archive' if you click it. I've still retained the above link though, to show that the National Archive seems to have misplaced its copy of the report too. Hmmm. However, it can still be found here.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Play abandoned

Scene I: A Willow tree on the top of an oval hillock. The world of vertebrate life continued quadrupedal, the seeming deviations therefrom being rather apparent than real. Suddenly a true biped appeared, a highly intellectual animal, an extraordinary deviation from the established course of organic development, instantly freeing up the anterior limbs for tasks other than locomotion.

Ape-man: This piece of wood seems to be shaped in a funny way, the top end thicker than the bottom. Ha Ha. Maybe I can round off the bottom of it a bit so its easier to grip with my non-walking limb.

[starts to violently rub the bottom end of a piece of large fallen branch against a rough stone surface, while a tiny cricket like insect darts away from the remaining foliage. This singular act is known to have sparked off the invention of both the hand held club or baton, and the abrasive filing tool at the same time. By the time he finishes, a glint of moonlight shines upon his bipedal outline and his new carved club]

Other-Ape-man: What good will that dead branch do?

[Ape-man demonstrates]

Other-Ape-man: Ouch, that ****ing hurt!

[Falls to ground clutching lower abdomen, as the stimuli of pain gradually arrives at the brain through newly evolved circuits. Eventually recovers, and gets up]

Cool. Lets go bash someone else!

[Before going off to bash others, Ape-man and Other-Ape-man practice the fine skill of swinging-the-club by devising a highly methodical and coherent set of basic rules:

1. Other-Ape-man hurls fist-size stone at Ape-man from a short distance away.

2. If the Ape-man is able to strike the stone with the wooden club, he is rewarded by gaining the permission to run over to Other-Ape-man and pound the club full-swing into the Other-Ape-man's lower abdomen, and then run back to his original position.

3. If the Ape-man misses hitting the stone, the Other-Ape-man now runs over to the Ape-man with the club, snatches his club, grunts in disgust, and wallops him on the lower abdomen. A role reversal occurs at this point, and Other-Ape-man then awaits Ape-man to recover to the point of being able to hurl stones.


4. If the Ape-man misses hitting the stone and the stone hits him instead, the Other-Ape-man again runs over to the Ape-man with the club, snatches his club, grunts in disgust, and wallops him on the lower abdomen. A role reversal occurs.


5. Since counting to six hadn't been invented, they continue adhering to the above rules until one learns the subtle art of club-swinging and/or the other dies trying.


6. Later on, spectator ape-men were allowed to fetch the stone and return it to the stone thrower, and often rewarded when they could catch it before the stone bounched.


Note: The art of stone throwing or fetching wasn't considered an art form until much later]


[These early creatures gradually migrated to other grasslands as the dense forestation receded, and by the sheer might of their swinging-club, conquered other ape-men and instilled in them the love of club-swinging. Those who didn't succumb, eventually died out of a strange fracture to their pelvic bones, which fossil records from that period strangely don't show]

Scene II: The Oval, on a small wet island. Enter Stone-Thrower, Club-Swinger, Fetchers, Empire, crowds and commentators.

The former colonies that successfully aped the game of ODI Cricket (Oh Dear Its Cricket) have been the masters of the game for some time now, particularly the formal penal colony of Australia. In the middle of the Oval grounds, a rectangular dirt patch has been marked out for performers. The final over is on, and 2 rounded, hard red objects left to throw. The designated Club-Swinger and his team needs seven runnaways to score a victory.

Stone-Thrower: Uhh! [Hurtling red object, after an amusing little run till the Empire dressed in white]

Club-Swinger: Ahh! [Hitting red object high and towards the crowds lining the field boundary, and preparing to stand in a smart posture leaning on his Willow branch before the red object lands]

[Red object lands amongst crowd]

Fetchers: [In unison] ****.

[Swarming crowds cheer, Empire throws up arms, Stone-Thrower grunts in disgust, uncontrollable pride gushes through Club-Swinger and hence raises his Willow branch in acknowledgment, commentators discuss trajectory of red object using sophisticated computing equipment, and feet pre-positioning tactics of Club-Swinger. The media will wallop the Stone-Thrower a little later. Everyone awaits the next and final rounded red object to be thrown. The media will also wallop the Club-Swinger if he misses to hit this]

Scene III : [Deleted due to utter waste of space]
Scene IV: [Deleted due to utter waste of time]

Addendum:
In 1912 a portion of a fossil elephant femur was reportedly discovered at East Sussex, England (Piltdown Man). At a Geological Society of London meeting shortly after, a scientist rose to state that "he could not imagine any use for an implement that looked like part of a cricket bat." He further believed in the possibility "of the bone having been found and whittled in recent times." For over 40 years, scientists preferred to believe that the object was a genuine paleolithic tool, though no one could assign it a plausible function. Today, its known that the Piltdown Man was largely a hoax, one of the grandest in history in fact. More of this here.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Reverse cultural colonization


The attainment of power, whether political, economic or otherwise, always appears to guarantee a global audience and make gradual cultural colonization seemingly effortless in its aftermath. History has numerous examples.

Inspired by India's steadily booming and globally influential economy, acclaimed filmmaker Shekhar Kapur thinks that the time is ripe for what he terms a "reverse cultural colonization". Last September, he along with author Deepak Chopra and a Virgin Comics team of extremely talented artists based out of Bangalore joined hands with just this intent. This partnership led to the creation of a highly stylistic re-packaging of a 5000 year old Indian legend recast in a post-apocalyptic setting. A legend that has been the bedrock of India's cultural identity for centuries.

Ramayan 3392 A.D. is what its called. A cursory glance at some of the pages and artwork that have been released on the internet, and I was pretty impressed. In my opinion, it might just be a timely, worthy and refreshing re-telling for a whole new generation, and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. Especially since the earlier hugely popular "original" Doordarshan TV version had assaulted my senses so seriously, that I was displaying suicidal tendencies in an effort to remain very dooor from this epidemic Ram-darshan.

Commenting on a similar India Authentic series of comics that aims to depict the the entire pantheon of Hindu deities, Deepak Chopra remarked that...
"The re-imagination of Indian mythologies and archetypes with a cross cultural flavor will ignite once again our collective yearning for achieving the impossible and embarking on a journey of mystery, magic, and adventure. It may well usher in an age that Homer never dreamed of."
Ambitious words, even for a spiritual guru. Lord Ram (or Rama as he is also interchangeably referred to) and his projected career path reminds me a lot of Thor, the Nordic God of Thunder. Mighty Thor's little stint at Marvel comics, did him a world of good.

Comics, have in general proved themselves to be an effective cultural delivery mechanism. I am inclined to believe Shekhar Kapur, in that the time is indeed ripe, and in fact, Ramayan 3392 A.D. seems to be doing quite well in the occident (Even accounting for the multitude of NRI's that can corrupt and disfigure any statistics gathered on the global reach of Indian influences). What might give this an added lift locally, is if our friendly neighborhood cultural police find something offensive within all this comic-ry, protest and then quietly step back after boosting its publicity.

Is someone going to burn an effigy of the creators soon, or do I have to start it off by complaining about the particularly immoral hue of blue that they used on Ram's skin?

No, ...wait. I hear they've allowed for a minor conflict to develop between Ram and Lakshman in their storyline, damaging our hitherto uncorrupted tradition of sibling bonding. And since my grandmother told me that that wasn't so in the original version, I rest my case.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Who buried my fossils?


In another amusing instance of showcasing its collective ignorance and dogmatic thinking, creationism seems to be making a comeback along the American Bible belt with the opening of a multi-million dollar creation museum in Kentucky recently. This, along with the gaining popularity of a book claiming that the Grand Canyon was carved by the retreating waters of the biblical Noah's flood rather than by natural erosion, are once again extending the heated debate between creationists and evolutionists.

Theres no telling how much more time it will take for mainstream consciousness to understand that whatever it is, the Theory of Intelligent Design (ID) can not be a science because its not falsifiable. Falsifiability, is a critical feature of scientific hypothesis and can be simplistically thought of as an inherent disclaimer stating that a given hypothesis or theory is only true, until proven false. An embodiment of rationality, it says: attack me with facts and I am ready to change in whatever way to accommodate those facts. Just being called a 'theory', doesn't give it instant membership to the science club. The Falsifiability card has been played against ID hugging creationists for some time now, but they seem to be coming up with more mightier yet sillier propositions as their grip gradually loosens.

Ironically, prominent voices of science from the past century have been guilty at times of decorating the frontiers of scientific advancement with some divine creationist references (i.e. Quantum Mechanics - God does not play dice, Cosmology - understanding the mind of God, etc), often viewed as aspirational and conformist by the creationists. The tables have now turned, and it seems like we've completely entered the age where the creationists boldly reference terms and methods of science in their interpretation of scripture.

I wonder, if and when science survives this, what is the real price that we'll have to pay as we watch this lengthy battle unfold, apart from the occasional insane attempts to bury back the fossils?

Thursday, 21 June 2007

What's Left is yours

Today happens to be the 30th year anniversary of one of the worlds longest running, uninterrupted socio-economic experiments:

How to run a self-contained communist administration within the framework of a democratic government, and evolve itself by a gradual selective assimilation of capitalist intent.

Confrontations and constraints have been many, yet India's eastern state of West Bengal continues this experiment by the most original methods that would probably make Comrade Lenin a touch uncomfortable. However, it can be argued that though communism is considered dead in theory, this particular Bengali flavour of it might give way to a reincarnated version that still adamantly clings on to its earlier name. Perhaps past associations pose a risk lurking here somewhere.

So if you were red and a revolutionist at heart and suddenly found yourself eyeing that man with the briefcase, what can you start to call yourself? Would the name matter?

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Old lady of Indian skies

Responding to the recent Indian Airlines (IA) strike, the civil aviation ministry said in a statement that "The strike will cause distress to a large number of passengers, apart form being detrimental to the financial condition and image of the company''

Oh, really? I hadn't thought of that.

Upon hearing of this strike by IA (now renamed 'Indian'), one can't help but immediately visualize sari-clad distressed stewardesses with brightly painted lips comfortably seated in the airport halls with tiffin-boxes by their side, and sharing tales of their grandchildren, occasionally waving a little white banner of protest. In this case, it seems cabin baggage handlers and ground support staff didn't show up for work at all.

In a way, the strike might benefit a greater number of people, and I fully support the protesters, despite the fact the Delhi High Court termed it illegal - Instead of dying the uncertain, slow, painful death that this airline seemed to be destined for, the protesters efforts will erode their already dwindling market share much more quicker, and ensure a natural, faster and final end to this winged misery. In effect, bringing relief to a lot of would-be passengers, spared from IA's renowned service-with-a-grunt and general inefficiency.

This is also a much better way of going, than by being blamed for any major air-disaster as a direct result of having budgeted more on flawed PR strategies, than on critical airline safety measures. Lets hope recent incidents such as these, aren't indicative of this trend.

Too bad that they happen to be our national airlines though.

Source: Strike a windfall for low-cost carriers, Times of India

Friday, 8 June 2007

Search for the God particle


During a 2005 Q&A session with Nobel Laureate, Leon Lederman, Fermilab scientist Peter Skands points out that "if the Higgs boson exists, and if it is the way the Standard Model predicts it to be, then it must have a mass greater than 114 GeV". More recently there have been experimental indicators that the mass of the Higgs Boson could lie in the region 155-180 GeV (Giga electron Volt). But then this increased speculative mass is often rather unfairly seen as an attempt to garner funding for larger (higher energy) particle accelerators, capable of detecting higher mass particles.

Repeated attempts have so far failed to find this much sought after and elusive particle. There is a general consensus among physicists that anyone associated with the possible finding of this particle is assured a Nobel Prize.

Dubbed 'The God particle' and 'The Holy Grail of particle physics', the Higgs boson is a hypothesised particle which, if it exists, would give the mechanism by which particles acquire mass, thereby affirming the best theory that physicist's have today to explain the origin of mass. It is safe to say, that if it does not exist, it would shake the foundations of theoretical physics to an extent that new interactions, fields and laws that bind them may need to be conjured up. So in a way, its absence may be as valuable for us as its presence.

There is a rumour going around right now, that the Higgs Boson may have been found by Tevatron physicists working on the D0 (pronounced D-Zero) experiment at Fermilab, Batavia near Chicago, USA.

There have been optimistic articles about observed 'bumps' in the data before, so we'll have to wait and watch to see if the current evidence from the Tevatron D0 data holds up, amidst the clutter of data from competing labs.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Oh, crumbs!


Recent events have brought back very fond memories of one the eighties famous characters, DangerMouse and his faithful hamster sidekick Penfold (Codename: Jigsaw, as he is often known to "go to pieces").

I was quite amused to find out that the black eye-patch that he wore throughout this series, wasn't really needed - he didn't have a bad eye. As he himself pointed out - it is worn "because it's part of the suit".

Through its wonderfully humorous, exciting, surreal adventures and the continuing fight against the evil forces of this world, this little mouse never failed to save the day.

One of my memorable quotes from this series can perhaps go to show how we can sometimes accurately analyse our surroundings to make a necessary point, and then proceed to completely miss the point, when Dudley Poyson, one of the characters from the series, shouts...

"I'll call myself a cab right away! I'm a cab, I'm a cab!"

VFS plugs security hole

This is an update to my earlier posting on the VFS security breach on the 10th of May.

I am pleased to write that this security breach on the VFS UK India website has now been rectified, thanks to the timely action taken by Davey Winder, and the co-operation of the VFS India IT department. He has published an article on this yesterday which describes the sequence of events that led to the resolution of this serious issue.

Having run out of avenues to turn to in an attempt to get someone to take notice, Davey Winder was my obvious last resort. I am quite thankful to Davey for approaching this in a very responsible and proactive way, and for his genuine concern and understanding about the implications this could possibly have.

At the moment, I can only reveal that I am in touch with UK government officials to aid in their investigations so that such breaches are not repeated in the future.

Update 17 th May: Statement by Lord Triesman, UK Secretary of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Announces an independent government investigation into this breach.

Update 14th August: Results of the investgation are out. More details on this post.



Sunday, 13 May 2007

Please stay Doctor

In conversation with an honest city doctor, recently transferred here from New Delhi:

"Bangalore is only good for engineers. This is not the place for doctors at all. Where I came from (Delhi), there are serious illnesses like Dengue, Cholera, Tuberculosis and so many others. Here, there's only a little bit of Arthritis, that's all. Nothing really good to help us doctors - I suppose its all to do with the wonderfully comfortable weather here."

[Note that sufficient liberty has been taken to alter the above quote by way of filling in missing articles and prepositions. Upon request, a raw version of this quote can be provided for purists]

This statement finally explained to me why I've been subjected to gradually declining medical standards in Bangalore. In spite of the lure of big-spending, non-bill-verifying, couldn't-care-less-because-my-company-pays IT professionals in the city, we're losing all our doctors to the competition!

The views expressed here do not necessarily mean that the medical fraternity and standards in Bangalore is in a deplorable state right now. Bangalore, and southern India in general are still prominent on the cure-map for the most of the country. So we're not there yet.

But, the next time you feel healthy about yourself, remember to spare a thought because you could be unknowingly contributing to the city's doctor-drain.

1961 Volkswagen Beetle: Air cooled, not water


"In the past, a few VW owners have been amused to find a perplexed gas station attendant with a bucket of water and no place to put it.

But we've taken care of that in our '61 model. This year a windshield washer is standard equipment"

Incidentally, its interesting to note that the design of this popular "peoples car" was inspired by none other than Adolf Hitler himself in 1932. His initial sketch can be found here.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Bangalore: All in a name

Perhaps a lot of debate has already taken place over the string of new pre-colonial names that have been conferred to our cities. If I remember right, it all started off in 1995 with Bombay (Mumbai), then soon followed by Madras (Chennai), Calcutta (Kolkata), and now Bangalore (Bengaluru).

"Dad, but what does the word Bangalore mean?"
"Well son, it all begins during the Ganga Dynasty in the 9th century when the city got its name as the City of Guards...
...and finally when the name was anglicized during the 18th and 19th centuries by the East India company and the British Raj."

As we await the Central Governments approval on Bangalore's new name, I cannot help but wonder at what we might stand to lose from this march to assert local pronunciation over what we deem as foreign.

Indian author and diplomat, Shashi Tharoor, remarked "Are we Indians so insecure in our independence that we still need to prove to ourselves that we are free?"

I don't believe that this trend is entirely about our insecurity, but more of identity. And its true the we must assert our identity. Yet by attempting to erase our colonial past in this way, generations after us will be deprived of having lessons in our history crystallized so naturally within the name of our cities.

"Dad, but what does the word Bengaluru mean?"
"Well son, it was during the Ganga Dynasty in the 9th century when this city got its name as the City of Guards."

Friday, 11 May 2007

A cure for your ails


American philosopher and author, Eric Hoffer remarked "We all have private ails. The troublemakers are they who need public cures for their private ails"

Thursday, 10 May 2007

25 Years of the ZX Spectrum


Last month, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer turned 25. The Guardian had a special tribute to this classic little home computer that "made a generation of younger people - and some of their parents - computer literate, and for a while instilled a genuine affection between man and machine". The BBC also has an excellent article here.

I managed to get my hands on a Speccy somewhere in January 1985, when my dad bought one for the family. This was the 48K Spectrum+, released in October 1984. The Spectrum+ introduced no changes to the basic Spectrum hardware but provided a "professional keyboard" replacing its much talked about yet violently disliked dead-flesh-feel rubber keys. In India, a company called Decibel marketed this under the name 'dB Spectrum+', and become reasonably popular in the sub-continent during the 1986-1989 period. Some of us, like me, had the original, smuggled into the country guised as a sleek typewriter. But you needn't explicitly declare to customs control that it was a typewriter. In those days, the customs officials at Indian airports would let you off on grounds of insanity if you tried to convince them that you had a computer tucked away in your hand baggage. Having said that, letting them make their own conclusions was always safer.

It's somewhat sad that it all came to an end, and reluctantly, I had to switch my allegiance to an IBM compatible Personal Computer. But for me, being reminded about the Speccy, is always like getting drenched in a shower of nostalgia.

After endless hours on games such as Manic Miner, Skool Daze, Daley Thompson's Decathlon, Jet Set Willy, Chuckie Egg and a host of others, I eventually tried my hand at learning BASIC. From then on there was no looking back, and I found myself hooked on to Z80 (that's the Zilog CPU that the Spectrum uses) assembly language programming. Right about that time, I recall having independently come up with a 12-point list of medical excuses that I could use for missing school!

It may be hard to believe for today's Intel Core Duo users, that the Speccy actually loaded its software from cassette tapes, and anyone who owned a Speccy together with a double-cassette recorder was almost always a prolific pirate! You could actually fit in a huge compilation of games and other software on a C90 tape, and loading a 40 Kilobyte game took a staggering 5 minutes during which you had to sit in front of your TV and watch colourful lights dancing to the rhythm of the bytes.

One thing that the ZX Spectrum taught me, and something that I've advised a lot of my friends and acquaintances over the years, is that its not always necessary to ensure that you have the fastest and the latest computing system. What matters is what meets your requirements, and in the end, any computer is only as good as its user.

During the time that I owned my Speccy, I'm glad that I was able to keep pushing its limits, thanks to the help of numerous books and magazines that it had spawned. Whether it was coercing pixels on the screen where you couldn't, or connecting and controlling home-brewed hardware that you really shouldn't.

The enthusiasm and energy that this machine generated really does live on till this day. It taught countless individuals across the world that you needn't accept given limitations, and a little can go a long long way. I'm getting all misty eyed now.

Happy Birthday Speccy!

Identity Leakage: Trust VFS to reveal all

The Visa Facilitation Services (VFS) in India have over the years greatly simplified any need to escape the motherland. If you're privileged enough to possess appropriately valid and verified documents, be it travel for holiday, human trafficking, business, family reunion or work, the VFS in India will see to it that you needn't do the worrying nor have to stand in long queues overnight wondering whether you've filled in that visa form correctly. According to recent reports I've been hearing, those days are almost gone.

On the VFS UK India website, you can nowadays apply online for most United Kingdom (UK) visa categories, as part of their Business Express Program and track your application too. VFS India are the British High Commission's commercial partner, and they operate application centres on behalf of the 4 visa departments in India.They have about 11 offices across Indian cities.

Last year, while I was directed to this VFS website due to an UK assignment, I stumbled upon a technical problem. After entering all my details on the online visa application form, I couldn't proceed further. All I had was this blank browser page on my computer monitor, and a 'Back' button that refused to do what it was designed to do.

Having spent a good hour typing in my details, I decided to twiddle around with the URL in my browser to see if something could be salvaged. About two minutes of twiddling with the VFS Uniform Resource Locator (URL) resulted in the following revelation: Anyone who has ever applied for a UK visa online, have their personal details exposed to everyone on the Internet. Personal details such as passport number, address, phone numbers, email, family details, work details, salary, clients, real-estate owned, countries you've visited, where you're going and when you're travelling...the list goes on. Essentially, the entire form, i.e. everything the British High Commission needs to know about you to grant you a visa is available for anyone to misuse. Security is thrown out the window.

This was naturally quite shocking. I quickly verified that what I was seeing was true: that VFS India could be responsible for large scale identity theft, for every online visa application that it receives. I sent an email to both VFS India and the British High Commission explaining this serious security issue. After about two months, I heard back from the British High Commission thanking me for the email bringing this to their notice, and promising to look into this matter. A year later nothing has happened. And this is in spite of the fact that identity theft in the UK is treated quite seriously and there is a parliamentary act that protects such information.

Identity theft occurs when a criminal uses another person's personal information to take on that person's identity. Identity theft in any form has serious consequences, and our law-makers in India should take a tougher stance. From a Wikipedia entry on Identity Theft, "The crimes include illegal immigration, terrorism and espionage, to mention a few. It may also be a means of blackmail if activities undertaken by the thief in the name of the victim would have serious consequences for the victim".

Terms & Conditions on the VFS UK India website state that "Under the Data Protection Act, we have a legal duty to protect any information we collect from you". And they go on to say "VFS shall not disclose or allow access to any personal data provided by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or acquired by VFS during the execution of the contract, other than to VFS personnel or those otherwise lawfully concerned with the execution of the contract".

Doesn't look like that to me. Whoever VFS India uses to design their website has some serious answering to do, and heads will surely roll. I'm not sure whether this security hole is visible in the United States VFS site or any other country's visa processing that VFS India handle.

In any case, I don't think I want to pay VFS for their services and then be exposed to this gaping security hole.

Excuse me while I try to find the end of this queue.

Update: Problem "sol-ved", as they say here in Bangalore! Check this post. This posting was also the basis of a Channel 4 television news report in the UK on the 17th of May, just a week after publishing on this blog.