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India sets deadline for potential BlackBerry stoppage
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.
In May, a Pakistani court banned Facebook in response to a competition on the social networking site to draw sketches of the Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan also blocked access to YouTube and Twitter.
Analysts say national security concerns have also been raised in the U.S.
Mr. Cleland, a deputy coordinator for communication and information policy in the George H.W. Bush administration, said that as "boundaryless" Internet communications become predominant countries are feeling "more and more out of the loop and out of control."
"BlackBerry is one technology and one company ... People need to understand that this is happening in a lot of countries," he said.
In July, China renewed Google's license, ending months of speculation that the Internet-search giant would be shut out of the world's biggest market of online users.
The standoff with the Chinese government centered on Google's refusal to censor search results on its Chinese site Google.cn.
Google shut its Chinese portal and redirected mainland China users to an uncensored site based in Hong Kong.
Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told The Times at the time that China "regulates its Internet and related matters according to its laws and following internationally accepted practices, and so long as foreign Internet companies operate within China's legal framework, there'll be no problems."
Indian Home Secretary G.K. Pillai on Thursday instructed India's Telecom Department to inform cell phone service providers that two Blackberry services - Blackberry Enterprise Service (BES) and Blackberry Messenger Service (BMS) - be made accessible to law enforcement agencies by Aug. 31.
"If a technical solution is not provided by 31st August, 2010, the government will review the position and take steps to block these two services from the network," India's Home Ministry said in a statement.
Blackberry services such as Voice, SMS and BIS already have been made available to law enforcement agencies in India.
Naqi Jaffery, chief analyst and executive vice president at Information Consulting LLC, says while many people would view such action as an infringement on personal liberties he is less uncomfortable.
"I tend to think that sometimes infringement of personal liberties is OK if it serves the broader purpose of combating threats to national security," Mr. Jaffery said. "Sometimes there is an obsession with personal security that could compromise national security."
In a statement provided to The Washington Times, RIM said it had spent "over a decade building a very strong security architecture to meet our enterprise customers' strict security requirements around the world."
"It is a solution that we are very proud of," the company said.
It said this solution was "designed to preclude RIM, or any third party, from reading encrypted information under any circumstances since RIM does not store or have access to the encrypted data. RIM cannot accommodate any request for a copy of a customer's encryption key, since at no time does RIM, or any wireless network operator or any third party, ever possess a copy of the key."
RIM said this means BlackBerry users "can maintain confidence in the integrity of the security architecture without fear of compromise."
BlackBerry's problems are seen by analysts as a sign of things to come for other smartphone firms.
RIM, meanwhile, says it cooperates with all governments with a "consistent standard and the same degree of respect."
"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," it said.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Ashish Kumar Sen is a reporter covering foreign policy and international developments for The Washington Times.
Prior to joining The Times, Mr. Sen worked for publications in Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a number of publications and online news sites including the British Broadcasting Corp., Asia Times Online and Outlook magazine.
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