August 31, is a portentous day for Canada based Research In Motion (RIM), the promoters of the iconic BlackBerry smart phones. The Indian Home Ministry has set August 31 as the deadline for BlackBerry’s encrypted communications, failing which a ban on encrypted services will be in effect. After successive meetings between the government and the BlackBerry service providers ended in a logjam a decision on the ban was the obvious route taken by the government to get a handle on the various channels of communication.
According to conditions in the license agreements between service providers and the government, all communications providers must allow surveillance of their networks when demanded. In the case of BlackBerry, the government has been demanding the encryption keys for servers, a requisite for surveillance, for the past two years.
Why has this taken so long? For starters, BlackBerry is a very different smart phone. Its USP is its security and that means no one, including RIM can snoop on your messages. Each BlackBerry customer sets his/her own unique encryption key that allows only the customer to access the data. However, after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai were co-ordinated using BlackBerry’s secure line, the government has woken up to the other side of technology and is now flashing the ‘National Security’ card.
RIM on its part is trying to negotiate a deal with the government by giving access to its messenger traffic. Nevertheless, the government is far from pacified. The cause of disagreement is the e-mail client servicing, that the security agencies are demanding full access to. With its USP at stake and the government demanding real time access to data against the ten-day waiting period, ‘Metadata’ that RIM is ready to provide, the situation is now in an impasse.
Interestingly, even as it battles the Indian government, BlackBerry is facing heat from other countries on parallel issues. With the Middle East countries, including Dubai and Saudi Arabia, in addition to the Muslim dominated Indonesia, Lebanon and Algeria also demanding a relook at BlackBerry’s encrypted traffic, RIM is trying hard to quell the fire around the world. From a global security perspective, these countries also figure as the international hotspots for major terrorist networks, a reasoning that is slowly building up pressure against RIM.
When broken down the entire standoff can be treated as a choice between privacy and security. Not surprisingly, the issue of security over privacy is an old one. Swiss banks to Internet, all hubs of privacies have faced the dilemma. From tax evasions, black money to credit card frauds and pornography, both privacy havens have had to rewrite the way they work in the face of public pressure who have woken up to the misuse of privacy.
That, laws must be written, for both, a saint and a sinner is an old adage. However, a due process has to be in place to guarantee that when BlackBerry traffic opens for scrutiny, a just cause to authorise the same exists. If the government demands propriety from RIM, it should be scrupulous enough to set absolute guidelines to ensure that the thin line between transparency and privacy in the interest of national security remains sacrosanct.