India’s BlackBerry brouhaha

Beware terrorists wielding smartphones, writes Asia Sentinel’s Neeta Lal

The impasse between Research in Motion (RIM), manufacturers of the popular BlackBerry smartphones, and the Indian government continues although RIM said this week it would yield some ground in allowing “lawful and limited access” to its messenger services.

And, while the Canadian company cobbles together what it calls a “technical solution,” the face-off has brought into sharp focus the growing friction between communications companies and governments in several countries over how to balance consumer privacy with national security.

India has a special case to make. The Mumbai carnage of 2008, Indian authorities say, was orchestrated by a handful of Islamic terrorists wielding BlackBerry devices. The attacks killed 166 and crippled India’s financial capital for months as well as resulting in billions of dollars of property destruction.

Caught between “supporting legal and national security requirements” and preserving the lawful needs of citizens and corporations on the other, India’s security concerns are not confined to RIM, nor are the concerns India’s alone. Other communications providers such as Google and the Internet telephony firm Skype are on its radar and the radars of other countries. Experts feel the government should work out a package solution to enable possible interception and monitoring of all Internet-based traffic.

Although RIM says it will allow only “lawful access” for security requirements and won’t make “any changes to the security architecture for Blackberry Enterprise Server customers,” matters came to a head last week when the Indian Home Ministry threatened to pull the plug on its million-plus BlackBerry subscribers if RIM did not make private data accessible to its security agencies by August 31. Following meetings this week between RIM and Indian authorities, Home Secretary GK Pillai has fleshed out the requirements of Indian security agencies to which the manufacturer will have to adhere.

New Delhi has been demanding encryption keys to BlackBerry’s servers since the service debuted in India in 2008, demands that echo requests of other governments around the world. The United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are all are reportedly considering new requirements on services like BlackBerry to ensure that they can monitor electronic messages for security reasons.