Thursday, August 12, 2010
India issued an ultimatum Thursday to the manufacturer of BlackBerry smart phones: Allow access to highly encrypted information by August 31 or face a blockage of two popular messaging systems.
The real-time messaging services have been under scrutiny because the encryptions make it impossible for intelligence agencies to monitor and, thus, India says, pose a potential national security threat.
India wants law enforcement agencies to gain access to the BlackBerry Enterprise Service and the BlackBerry Messenger Service.
"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," a news release said.
What hangs in the balance is the use of BlackBerry for millions in a country with a booming wireless market.
Calls placed by CNN to Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian manufacturer of BlackBerry, were not immediately returned.
The Indian government has expressed grave security concerns over the use of highly encrypted services. Some find it hard to believe that the world's largest democracy is taking such a tough stance. But India also has deep security concerns as one of the most-attacked countries in the world.
India was shaken after suspected Pakistani militants attacked Mumbai in November, 2008, leaving more than 160 people dead. In that incident, the government eventually tapped into satellite phone conversations between the terrorists and their handlers, but the attack was already under way.
Vikram Sood, a retired Indian intelligence agent, said India would be completely blindsided if terrorists used BlackBerries to plot an attack and the devices were inaccessible by the government.
"So what do you do? React after the fact?" Sood asked. "If you react after the fact, the explosion has taken place or a terrorist act has taken place, 100 people, 150 people have died.
"Who is liable for that? Is BlackBerry going to be liable because it was withholding information in a manner of speaking? So isn't it better to share? Knowledge and information from all sources is necessary, there are no two ways about it."
The situation brings up an old debate brought on by new technologies -- the government's right to know versus consumers' rights to privacy and free flowing information.
The decision will have huge ramifications in India, one of the fastest growing telecommunications markets in the world. More than 600 million Indians use cellular phones, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India; 1 million of those are BlackBerries.
So the loss for RIM is potentially huge in India. If it loses some of the services it offers, it could have a harder time attracting customers.
Telecom operators in the country seem to be hedging their bets. They're working up contingency plans, but not really expecting to lose BlackBerry services, especially considering that RIM was able to make concessions and strike a deal with Saudi Arabia to avoid a ban. The United Arab Emirates has also threatened RIM with a shutdown of services if access to encrypted information is not granted.
"We think it will all be worked out," said Sanjay Warke, chief executive officer of telecom giant Vodaphone's India operations.