A few days following the concession made by BlackBerry manufacturers, Research in Motion (RIM), to provide Indian security agencies access to their encrypted data, India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram held “security to be more important than privacy”.
Security concerns in India have certainly risen following the terror attack on Mumbai in November 2008, the worsening violence in the disputed region of Kashmir and a rising Maoist insurgency in a mineral-rich territory of the East. And certainly, such concerns may be flared by the fact that attacks are often coordinated using mobile phones, satellite phones and voice over internet calls. These mounting fears over terrorism have led the Indian Government to demand from their first target, RIM, full access to the encrypted data of BlackBerry users in India.
Canadian company RIM refused this request on technical grounds, arguing that the information would be impossible to provide. However, in the knowledge that data is provided by RIM to other countries the Indian Government stuck firm to their demand: then why not India? While the private service, Blackberry Internet Service (BIS), offered by RIM uses their own servers for communication, RIM maintained it is not possible for them to access the business service (Blackberry Enterprise Service (BES)). Indeed, the level of privacy afforded to RIM’s corporate customers is a strong selling point and providing governments with access to email communication for surveillance purposes has the potential to breach a fundamental principle of RIM’s business approach: customers’ trust in the confidentiality of their communications.
Following RIM’s refusal to grant access, the Indian Government issued an ultimatum: if they did not grant full access to all data (encrypted or not), India would block the mail service of the smart phone manufacturer entirely. Fearing this ban on their business in India, one of the fastest growing smart phone markets of the world, RIM conceded to the Indian Government’s requests and made several suggestions to resolve the issue of providing access to their data. The decision made by Nokia, RIM’s main competitor in the region, to set up servers in India to facilitate government monitoring, may well have weakened any bargaining position that RIM were hoping to play on.
The measures to be adopted by RIM have yet to be made public but the proposals are seemingly sufficient for the Indian government to grant a two-month grace period to evaluate RIM’s suggestions. While the reprieve offers Blackberry users in India some breathing space, it is unclear whether RIM will be in a position to satisfy the interests of both the Indian Government in security and surveillance and their customers in ensuring the privacy of their communications. India’s Home Secretary is due to meet officials from the Department of Telecommunications, the Intelligence Bureau and the National Technical Research Organisation on Monday the 6th of September to discuss Blackberry security issues.
In light of this development and the Indian Government’s priority on national security over privacy, there is likely to be mounting fear amongst similar online communications companies that they may be the next target and have to provide access to encrypted data transmitted online. RIM has faced similar issues in other countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Indonesia.