- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2010

India’s decision to set a deadline for BlackBerry to share encrypted data or face a ban is symptomatic of a clash between nations - both democratic and undemocratic - and the boundary-less world of information technology.

India on Thursday informed BlackBerry’s manufacturer, Canada-based Research In Motion (RIM), that it will block e-mail and messenger services on the smartphone if the government is not allowed to monitor messages by Aug. 31.

Data from the BlackBerry is sent to servers in Canada where high-grade encryption technology makes the content of messages inaccessible to outsiders.

RIM takes pride in the level of privacy it offers to BlackBerry users, but a growing number of nations are worried terrorists will exploit this privacy to plot attacks.

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 were planned and executed using electronic devices, including cell phones and GPSs. Six Americans were among the 166 people killed in Mumbai.

“What you’re seeing is a trend towards countries, not just India, asserting more sovereign control over communications,” said Scott Cleland, president of Precursor LLC.

“The Internet, the way it is architected, is a cybersecurity nightmare. It is architected in a way that allows bad actors to very easily cover their tracks. So you have countries all over the world that are pulling their hair out trying to deal with the reality of bad actors on the Internet,” he said.

“The problem becomes how do you define what bad is? In some countries bad is any opposition, which isn’t bad in other countries that have freedom of speech.”

Democratic countries such as India and Indonesia and undemocratic ones including China and Saudi Arabia have in recent months had run-ins with technology firms.

Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this gets into areas that governments don’t like to talk about.

“The trade off is between on the one hand the ability of governments to potentially intercept communications between people who are planning some kind of criminal activity and on the other hand the confidence of customers that their private communications are in fact private,” Mrs. Schaffer said.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia reportedly backed down from a threat to ban BlackBerry service in the kingdom after RIM agreed to give Saudi authorities codes for message users.

The United Arab Emirates is seeking similar access and has said it will block BlackBerry’s messenger, e-mail and Web browsing services Oct. 11 if access is not provided.

Mrs. Schaffer said authorities in a number of countries have “expected providers of electronic communications to give them some kind of electronic key which permits them in those cases that warrant it to intercept telephone communications.”

Google too has had its share of problems in China, Thailand and Turkey; while its e-mail service Gmail was suspended in Iran earlier this year in a government bid to curb opposition protests.

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