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13 October 2008  
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Cover Story

Travel & Hospitality: VFS Global

The business of servicing visas is one that demands the highest levels of confidentiality and security. VFS has its work cut out as it strives to ensure the required levels of security and privacy of customer data in order to win the confidence of its clients. by Aditya Kelekar

Dhiren Savla

Data privacy advocates may not yet have gathered a large following in India, but, elsewhere in the world, citizens are quite paranoid about their privacy rights. In the UK, Privacy International, a watchdog on surveillance and privacy invasions by governments, cried foul when the government called for the collection of fingerprints of citizens, claiming that the centralized database the government planned to store them in was not secure. With groups from diverse backgrounds keeping vigil, it's not easy for anybody to continuously wrest business dealing with sensitive data on the strength of its security practices. VFS Global, the visa services business arm of Kuoni Travel Group, seems to have done just that.

VFS Global works with diplomatic missions to support administrative and non-judgmental tasks related to visa application. This support includes front and back office management across geographies. In getting the consulates on board, the company must prove its security credentials to them. "Information security is of paramount importance for our business," said Dhiren Savla, CIO, VFS Global. Given the public outcry against half-baked data security measures, that is hardly surprising.

To meet the demands of its clients, VFS has embedded best practices like ISO 27001 standards in its operations across 250 + offices. VFS is undergoing certification process for its 90 offices to validate adherence to these standards. In the second phase, the remaining offices will undergo the certification process.

Savla said that the certification process has been a product of institutionalized security practices and rigorous training. "We have end to end protection of information-from source, to transmission to storage-complying with various data privacy requirements," he said.

Information security related training is also taken seriously at VFS. "Our ongoing awareness programs ensure that every individual in the organization takes responsibility for security," said Savla. The company has engaged a vendor to stream e-learning packages over the Internet to its far-flung offices. There is also substantial focus on physical security as all information is not electronic.

For the security culture that VFS has cultivated, the top management's support cannot be overstated. "Information security concerns are addressed by the board," Savla said. The importance of IT and IS is seen by the presence of these functions on the executive board. Surprise audits, supported by management, are an essential part of the checks and safeguards VFS has in place. Using automated tools, the company gathers evidence of adherence to standards and policies and validates the same through third party audits.

The company's IT team, though, has a much bigger task than simply maintaining confidentiality of data in countries where the sensitivity vis-à-vis information security is high. Meeting SLAs in terms of data accuracy, timely submission of documents, and proper verification of documents are all IT-supported business imperatives for VFS. Network uptime requirements are stringent, and Savla's team takes steps to provide the necessary assurances. Offices across the globe are connected via MPLS or IPSEC VPN with built-in redundancy. Plans are afoot to establish a disaster recovery site before the end of this year.

To support its operations, VFS has centers, call centers and operation hubs, waiting lounges, online appointment scheduling facilities and courier pick-up and delivery services. Many of these have an IT component that is essential for their working. For instance, the online appointment scheduling facilities that Savla's team has deployed has helped control crowd resulting in better service to applicants as well as concerned diplomatic missions.

Today, VFS Global serves the interest of 19 diplomatic missions in 43 countries around the world. In less than seven years since it was established, the company has grown to handle over three and a half million visa applications per annum across its 146 offices worldwide. But even at the peak of this expansion drive, Savla maintains his inward focus and goes about tightening loose bolts within the firm. "We are constantly on the lookout for security threats. Our business depends on how secure we keep our data," he concluded.



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