Permit or perish

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

The controversy over BlackBerry's services draws attention to the increasing might of security agencies to snoop into conversations between individuals.

Mr. President-elect, hanging on to your BlackBerry would free you a bit from the gilded prison of the White House. It would help you keep it real amid the stifling air of unreality that will soon envelop you.

Newsweek advice to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama in November 2008

I HAVE never used a BlackBerry (BB). Actually, I have spurned suggestions that I should own one, whether I needed it or not. I had been told by many that if I did not flaunt a BB I was not likely to be entertained by the elite among private industry. In retrospect, however, I am happy I did not succumb to the temptation, because I know how the wonder machine has ruined the happiness of many homes with executives unable to get over their addiction to it and spending less and less time with their families.

Compounding this situation is the current controversy between Research In Motion (RIM), the makers of BB, and the Indian government over the monitoring of BB traffic by security agencies. The government is very clear that it will not permit BB services in the country unless the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and a host of other national security outfits are allowed full access to all that passes through the BB system before encryption. (Unlike other smartphone makers, RIM produces its own phones and runs the network through which they function.)

RIM, on the other hand, says that foolproof security and absolute privacy that flows from it are the company's Unique Selling Proposition (USP) and these cannot be bartered away to permit Indian authorities to eavesdrop on instant messages and the email traffic that pass through the BB network. In the case of corporate information, RIM says that its customer companies have their own keys to which RIM itself does not have access. All this makes BB a unique service that is the envy of many of its competitors.

Talks between RIM and Home Ministry officials, after the initial roadblock, seem to be heading towards a compromise. As I write this column, there is information that RIM has agreed to a partial monitoring, of at least the instant messenger service. This will be followed by efforts towards evolving a technical solution to the demand for interception of content that passes through the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BSE). This is a welcome development, although it is a climbdown by RIM from its original rigid stance. It also squares with the assessment by some knowledgeable observers that India is too large a market there are about 740,000 BB users in the country for RIM to sacrifice and that it would come to some kind of a truce with New Delhi. (Google coming to a pact with recalcitrant Chinese authorities despite an initial principled stand and tall talk against submitting itself to censorship is still green in memory.)

RIM might actually agree to position a few servers in India just now they are all in parent establishments in Canada and work towards a stable arrangement that satisfies both parties. Whatever the final outcome, the current controversy has given a lot of much-desired publicity for the showpiece and status symbol that BB has become over the years. This could be most welcome, especially at a time when its rivals (Nokia and Apple) are making rapid inroads into its earlier near monopoly.

I do not want to tire out the average reader with all technical details of how BB ensures security when you use its voice communication and email features. Suffice it to say that it has established a formidable reputation for protecting customer (both corporate and individual) data. It is reasonable that it wants to preserve this edge over its competitors. But then, RIM should understand that things on the law enforcement front have changed for the worse in the past few years. Both terrorists and international criminal gangs those who specialise in human trafficking, child pornography, drug smuggling and cyber crime are relentless in their pursuit of technology to outwit law enforcement for exchanging operational information across the globe at the blink of an eye.

Tools such as BB, Skype (basically this is Internet telephony) and the instant messaging facility offered by several companies, such as Google, provide the speed and anonymity that anti-social elements are looking for. It is known for certain that during the November 26, 2008, attacks across Mumbai, the terrorists exchanged live information over satellite phones. (There is no information that any of them carried a BB. They seemed to have only basic Nokia phones.) This was one instance that came to our notice.

There are possibly several others that have escaped the law enforcement radar. This is why governments all over the globe are up in arms against any service provider who markets impenetrable channels of communication for a price. If the service provider is oblivious to the needs of security agencies to scrutinise both incoming and outgoing communication, the situation becomes really unpleasant, and the threats to block channels of the kind BB provides with the help of local service providers become quite unexceptionable. Arguments such as possible loss of uniqueness and non-availability of technology to comply with law enforcement directives do not impress the authorities very much.

Added to this is the suspicion that RIM has bent over backwards to accommodate similar requests from United States government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA), a charge that RIM vehemently denies. This does not, however, pass muster because one knows the immense prowess of the NSA to snoop on communication worldwide, although the agency is coming under increasingly close judicial scrutiny. In a ruling last April, a Federal court came down heavily on the NSA's wiretapping of a defunct Islamic organisation, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, without a warrant, and said this was a violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Incidentally, it is not India alone that has raised security concerns over the BB service. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have taken this up with RIM. In fact, BB has had a problem with its own home country's police. The Canadian Police, including the famed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), had complained in the past that BB's obdurate security policy made criminal investigation very tough. They conceded that their own smartphones on the BB network provided the kind of high security they needed for their internal conversations. But this is a double-edged weapon the same medium is available to the underworld as well, making it extremely difficult for the police to keep track of its activities.

There is also the apprehension that some bad elements use additional software to enhance the levels of encryption that are already available to them from a BB service. There is yet another factor that lends gravity to the scene. The BB was once upon a time the preserve of large companies because of its high cost. This has changed with the service becoming affordable to private individuals, and this has caused great concern to Canadian and other police agencies. This is the crux of the present imbroglio in India and countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which definitely have a crime and terrorist problem.

What is core to the debate over BB services, something that has not received the attention it deserves, is the increasing might of security agencies to snoop into conversations between individuals, especially those at cross purposes with the ruling party. There are any numbers of scandals all over the world over misuse of intelligence organisations for this purpose. India is no exception.

Readers will recall the sensational media allegation a few months ago that the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) was indulging in eavesdropping. The government response was unconvincing. Except for some occasional noise in Parliament and the State Assemblies, the matter has not been taken to the courts in a collective form that would generate a clear-cut judicial ruling in favour of a highly-regulated monitoring of telephone and Internet traffic.

At present, all that is required is an authorisation from the Home Secretary, who is a government official owing allegiance to the establishment. However upright and law abiding the official, there is always an iota of suspicion that the Home Secretary may be willing to let subjectivity get the better of his desire to be scrupulously objective.

An interesting question is whether judicial authorisation instead of mere administrative approval as in the case of the U.S. to intercept networks will help invest confidence in the process. This is not impractical because the number of requests for interception is not that large to cast an undue burden on the judiciary.

Enlightened individuals in the polity should be in sync with this approach to the problem if they want security agencies to carry the credibility they deserve in an increasingly problem-ridden post-9/11 world.

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