At a time when many are leaving WhatsApp in reaction to the change in the general conditions of use, the State continues to develop Tchap, its secure instant messaging service for its agents.
It was launched in 2019, promising to be “more secure than Telegram”. L’application Tchap, created by “Dinum”, an interministerial department in charge of digital transformation, is now almost two years old. The promise was simple: replace WhatsApp and others in the professional exchanges of civil servants. And offer, of course, a sovereign application and efficient encryption of conversations and exchanges between ministries.
During confinement, Tchap has experienced a certain boom. The number of users has more than doubled since March, reaching 200,000 people at the start of 2021 (this represents about 4% of the state and territorial civil service). Staff from Paris hospitals (AP-HP), tax, health insurance, national education academies, gendarmes, customs officers, policemen, soldiers or from the metropolis of Greater Lyon joined it recently, as did several thousand people every week.
Today, according to Dinum, around 100,000 users connect to Tchap at least once a day, for around 3 million messages per month. And the publication ofa call for tenders in early January (spotted by Public actors) of a total amount of 4.7 million euros over four years for the operation and improvement of the application also shows the firm intention to continue to develop it.
What exactly does Tchap look like?
Tchap is a state-operated application, whose servers are hosted in France and that “provides the necessary guarantees in terms of confidentiality and data protection”, according to its description in the Apple store.
It was developed on an opensource base, “Element” (formerly Riot), maintained by a Franco-British company, New Vector. It offers simple discussion functions for conversations (two-person, small group or in the form of open forums), a directory of agents already registered. It can be used on smartphone (Android or iPhone), tablet and computer and looks, overall, like a classic messaging application:
Who is it for?
Only agents of the French administration can register and communicate with each other, using their professional email address. (@ elysee.fr, @ gouv.fr, or National Education academic addresses, @ac – ?. fr). The list of users is growing regularly: parliamentarians and parliamentary officials have, for example, been able to access it since May 2020. Some town halls or local authorities have asked to be able to use it. Finally, a Tchap user can invite an “external correspondent” to a group.
Why is Tchap “a necessity”?
“For the State, the challenge was to have a solution that guaranteed the trust and confidentiality of exchanges”, confirms to France Inter Nadi Bou Hanna, Interministerial Director of Digital. “We want, for example, to ensure that the servers are in France and do not fall under non-European regulations. That all the parts exchanged are well treated by anti-virus, that the numbers are masked. We cannot not be dependent either, for communications which nevertheless become very important. Finally, interoperability: we want State agents to be able to work in a common network. “
To have created Tchap: a good idea and even a necessity, judges for his part the researcher in cybersecurity, Baptiste Robert, who had revealed several security vulnerabilities on Tchap at the time of its launch. “Today, an instant messaging application represents a major stake in communications between, for example, the president and his ministers or in the affairs of the State, between officials”, he confirms.
“They are used more and more in everyday life (…) so it makes sense to have a secure messaging application, with open code, checked regularly.” This is by no means the case with WhatsApp, for example, in an all the more particular context of changes in the general conditions of use of the Facebook solution.
What is the objective of this call for tenders?
The Dinum team targets 300,000 users by the end of 2021, wants to reach “other actors of the public service” and develop new features, such as possibility to have secure audio conversations.
Until now, the application was in a “beta” phase of development. With the growing number of users, “we need to rely on an industrialist to guarantee a rise in power”, explains Nadi Bou Hanna and “through this call for tenders” to strengthen “the little team” who works today on Tchap.
Maintaining such an application, “it is a lot of work,” said Baptiste Robert. “You have to put teams and skills in front. (…) It requires a certain dynamism. Security breaches are found every day and it is necessary that, when there is one, the application team has the processes to respond quickly, fix the problem, etc. ”
Is it really convincing compared to the known alternatives?
This is the whole question. “That people do not want to use this type of application, which benefits from a lower quality of service compared to WhatsApp (which is prettier, works better and where there are more people), c is obvious! “, believes Baptiste Robert. “People don’t use an app they don’t want.” However, Dinum recalls that the 200,000 users arrived by “word of mouth”, without a real injunction to use the tool.
“There is no obligation to use it”, confirms to France Inter an official posted abroad, who installed Tchap on her phone on her own initiative, shortly after its creation. Even though the app is “so easy to use” than a classic messaging system, “we remain very mail in the administration” and “Tchap has not yet entered our habits”, confides this official who considers the application as a “good thing” for conversation security. “The idea is good in terms of data protection, digital sovereignty … But the app is not yet very practical, so we do without”, considers for his part a parliamentary collaborator.
“We always have to find a trade-off between the security and the user-friendliness of the tools”, recognizes Nadi Bou Hanna. But its objective is simple: “That Tchap be part of the tool kit. If it is a tool that appeals to people and that is ergonomic, it will be used more and more.”
Why does the president continue to use WhatsApp or Telegram?
Very often, the press echoed the private conversations that Emmanuel Macron was able to have on the WhatsApp and Telegram applications (for a congratulatory message to Martin Fourcade, a conversation with Boris Johnson or some discussions with close advisers). “It’s a real problem”, judges cybersecurity expert Baptiste Robert, even if he recognizes that those who must exchange at a certain level of confidentiality “are aware of it”.
Nadi Bou Hanna, Interministerial Director of Digital, also believes that the people concerned “know the issues perfectly” and “for conversations that require a high level of confidentiality”, “tools are dedicated to confidential or secret defense (…) and commonly used by our high authorities”. Nevertheless, he adds, some ministers already communicate regularly on Tchap.
Is it possible to force government officials to use it?
No, moreover the application is not compulsory. Neither in an administration nor at the highest point of the state. “If there was to be a compulsory nature, it would not come from the central administration. But it is possible that a department head asks his agents to install it in order to be in immediate contact with them and vice versa”, recalls Nadi Bou Hanna. “It is very difficult to impose tools. It is better to convince with powerful tools and to show the advantages compared to what can exist free in nature”, he concludes.