RIM says BlackBerry talks in India continue

BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd. says it has not agreed to heightened surveillance of its corporate clients by the Indian government, as talks continue over access to e-mails and other data sent from the smart phones.

Like the United Arab Emirates, India is pushing for greater access to encrypted information sent by the phones that gets routed through the Canadian company’s computers overseas. Both countries are concerned about security, though only the UAE has announced plans to ban some data services on the handsets.

“We won’t compromise on the security architecture of our corporate e-mails,” said RIM’s India spokesman, Satchit Gayakwad. “We respect the requirements of regulatory bodies in terms of security, but we also look at the customer’s need for privacy.”

Analysts say RIM’s expansion into fast-growing emerging markets — and the UAE’s recent public challenge to the company — is threatening to set off a wave of regulatory challenges, as RIM’s commitment to information security rubs up against the desires of local law enforcement.

Over the weekend, the United Arab Emirates announced plans to ban e-mail, messaging and Web browsing on BlackBerrys starting in October.

India is also seeking some access to BlackBerry information.

“BlackBerry has assured the Ministry of Home Affairs that the issue of monitoring of the BlackBerry will be sorted out soon,” India’s internal security chief U.K. Bansal told reporters last week, after widespread reports that the government had threatened to ban RIM. “I am sure we will soon be on the same page and our concerns will be addressed.”

As RIM works with the Indian government on security concerns, it must also reassure Indian companies that employee e-mails are safe from snoopers.

RIM has said its discussions with the more than 175 countries where it operates are private. Gayakwad did say, however, that the Indian government has other ways of cracking data if security concerns arise. It can rifle through an Indian company’s e-mail server, for instance, or monitor phone calls, text messages or Web-based e-mails sent from Blackberry devices.

India and the UAE aren’t alone in wanting more control over BlackBerry messaging. Bahrain has threatened to crack down on spreading news using the devices. Telecommunications officials in Saudi Arabia have also said they are planning to curtail use of the BlackBerry messaging service. And industry experts say they believe RIM offered China some concessions before the BlackBerry was introduced there.

“Clearly to acquiesce to the service’s launch … the (Chinese) government has had to reach its own comfort level regarding security concerns,” said Duncan Clark, chairman of BDA China Ltd., a technology industry research firm in Beijing. “What precisely that involves we can only speculate.”

RIM issued a statement Tuesday denying it has given some governments access to BlackBerry data.

“RIM cooperates with all governments with a consistent standard and the same degree of respect,” the company said. “Any claims that we provide, or have ever provided, something unique to the government of one country that we have not offered to the governments of all countries, are unfounded.”

RIM said its technology does not allow it, or any third party, to read encrypted e-mails sent by corporate BlackBerry users. (The consumer version has a lower level of security.)

The mounting regulatory pushback has prompted concern from the U.S. and advocacy groups.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called the UAE’s action “a move in the wrong direction.”

“It’s not about a Canadian company. It’s about what we think is an important element of democracy, human rights, and freedom of information and the flow of information in the 21st century,” Crowley told reporters Monday.

Arvind Ganesan, who follows business issues at Human Rights Watch, urged RIM to be clearer about the standards it has for dealing with national governments, and what types of data access arrangements have been agreed.

“Governments throughout the world are trying to get at personal information for a variety of reasons,” he said. “There have to be real safeguards in place to ensure governments don’t use this for nefarious purposes.”

The UAE’s telecommunications regulator did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirates’ ambassador to the U.S., has said the UAE is exercising its sovereign right and wants RIM to comply with its regulations, just as it does with laws in the U.S. and other countries.

Associated Press