India eyes Google and Skype in security crackdown

India may ask Google and Skype for greater access to encrypted information once it resolves security concerns with BlackBerrys, which are now under threat of a ban, according to a government document and two people familiar with the discussions.

The 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, which were coordinated with satellite and cell phones, helped prompt a sweeping security review of telecommunications ahead of the Commonwealth Games — a major sporting event to be held in New Delhi in October.

Some analysts say more anonymous technologies — like the basic Nokia phones used by 10 gunmen who rampaged through Mumbai in November 2008, leaving 166 dead — and Gmail are more likely to be used to plan terror attacks than BlackBerry devices, which require reliable identity proof and contact information.

On July 12, officials from India’s Department of Telecommunications met with representatives of three telecom service provider groups to discuss interception and monitoring of encrypted communications by security agencies.

“There was consensus that there are more than one type of service for which solutions are to be explored,” according to a copy of the minutes of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press. “Some of them are BlackBerry, Skype, Google etc. It was decided first to undertake the issue of BlackBerry and then the other services.”

“They have clearly instructed us that after BlackBerry, they are going to take to task Google, Skype and similar services that bypass the monitoring department of India,” said Rajesh Chharia, president of the Internet Service Providers Association of India, who attended the meeting. “According to the law, they have to allow monitoring.”

The officials’ immediate concern was the BlackBerry, but they also plan to look at Google and other companies that use encryption for e-mail and messaging services, said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, who was briefed on the meeting.

Google and Skype said Friday they haven’t received any notices from the government.

The Home Ministry said present talks involve only BlackBerry maker, Canada-based Research In Motion.

“We are talking only to BlackBerry,” ministry spokesman D.R.S. Chaudhary said Friday. “Not to Google or others.”

On Thursday, India threatened to ban BlackBerry services unless the device’s manufacturer makes them accessible to its security agencies by Aug. 31.

On Friday, Research In Motion Vice President Robert E. Crowe met with Home Ministry officials in New Delhi to try to avoid the ban.

“I am optimistic,” Crowe told reporters after the meeting.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also threatened to cut off popular BlackBerry services unless they get greater access. Like India, they’ve cited security concerns in pushing to access encrypted information sent by the cell phones that gets routed through servers overseas.

Rights groups fear such access could be abused.

Research In Motion said in a Thursday statement that it maintains a consistent global standard for legal access to encrypted information which precludes making specific deals for specific countries.

All such access must be governed by a country’s laws and must be applied equally to all vendors and all technologies, RIM said.

It also reiterated that it cannot “unlock” secure corporate e-mails. “Contrary to any rumors, the security architecture is the same around the world and RIM truly has no ability to provide its customers’ encryption keys,” it said.

The U.S. has technology to crack encrypted BlackBerry messages, which it can legally use when national security is at stake, diplomats say.

India is keen to get the U.S. to transfer technologies, like de-encryption, as part of high-level bilateral discussions on technology transfer likely to come up at Obama’s state visit to India in November, diplomats say.

For now, more humble devices may present a greater security threat than the BlackBerrys used by India’s business elite.

Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman in the 2008 Mumbai attack, told an Indian court that he and his comrades all had Nokia mobile phones.

Photographs of court evidence show that the gunmen carried the most basic Nokia handsets.

“We did not find any Blackberrys,” Special Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, who led the case against Kasab, said in an interview.

The relative anonymity and disposability of prepaid mobile phones and Web mail make them attractive to criminals, said Prasanto K. Roy, chief editor at CyberMedia Publications, a trade magazine group.

He said terrorists would likely opt to use disposable handsets and keep changing the SIM cards. Another hard-to-trace method would be to use Internet-based e-mail, like Gmail, updating and saving messages as drafts to avoid interception, he said.

RIM has fast expanded its presence in India from 114,000 users in early 2008 to an estimated 700,000 today — four-fifths of whom are corporate clients, who would be hit by a ban, Roy said.

RIM won’t break out the number of users in India.

India has suffered deadly attacks, by both home grown and foreign militants, with some regularity for years. Many BlackBerry users here say national security trumps personal convenience.

“If BlackBerry cannot provide a solution for the security threat to the nation, we’re happy to let go of the services,” said Sharad Dhariwal, a 26-year-old investment banker.

That could be good news for Nokia — RIM’s chief competitor here — and Apple, which recently brought the iPhone to India.

Associated Press