Why India May Issue a BlackBerry Ultimatum

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Rajanish Kakade / AP

BlackBerry phones on display at a shop in Mumbai on Aug. 5, 2010

An unusual meeting in New Delhi scheduled for Thursday will decide the fate of BlackBerry services in India, the fastest-growing telecommunications market in the world, with more than 675 million mobile-phone subscribers. The country's Home Ministry, responsible for internal security, and the Department of Telecommunications will meet with all telecom operators offering BlackBerry services to set a deadline for Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, to address security concerns or risk shutting down services.

India's concern over the misuse of the BlackBerry and similar devices to send encrypted data comes after recent, unverified reports that RIM agreed to set up a server in China to address the Chinese government's security demands. The Indian Home Ministry is checking out those reports, which RIM has called "speculation." A similar controversy recently came to a head in the Middle East; RIM reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to avoid a potential ban but is still negotiating with the United Arab Emirates, which says it will begin its ban on Oct. 11.

The renewed attention has stirred up Indian security agencies, which have pressed their demands for a similar security arrangement, insisting that the situation isn't just an intelligence-agency version of keeping up with the Joneses. "Our concerns are genuine," Vikram Sood, former chief of India's external intelligence agency, Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), tells TIME. "If a group of terrorists are communicating on a platform which the state has no way of accessing, then I have a problem. It's as simple as that."

Whatever the reason for India's sudden security consciousness, sources in the Home Ministry say it is "almost certain" that India will set a deadline for telecom operators to either get RIM to give security agencies access to monitor BlackBerry communications or shut down its services. The Indian government has been trying for almost two years to get BlackBerry to allow it to monitor, intercept or decrypt its messenger, e-mail and Web exchanges, which are sent through an encrypted platform. The Indian government may not have the power to tell RIM what to do, but it does have jurisdiction over mobile-phone companies operating in India, so it is turning up the heat on them. "At least, these people are bound by the Indian law," says a top-ranking official from the Home Ministry, who is also part of the negotiation with RIM. "Their license agreements allow security agencies access to their voice and data under certain conditions."

A senior intelligence official tells TIME that the Indian government plans to give RIM 15 days from Aug. 12 to ensure that its e-mail and other data services comply by giving the government access to "formats that can be read by security and intelligence agencies." This is the second time that the Indian government has threatened to block the operations of BlackBerry. (New Delhi raised the possibility shortly after the November 2008 siege of Mumbai.)

The furor over whether China is getting some consideration that is being denied to India has prompted vehement denials from RIM. "There is only one BlackBerry enterprise solution available to our customers around the world, and it remains unchanged in all the markets we operate in," Satchit Gayakwad, public relations manager of RIM in India, tells TIME. "RIM 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."

Still, if RIM fails to meet India's deadline for compliance, telecom operators in the country may have to pay penalties and withdraw the services that the security agencies aren't able to monitor. BlackBerrys are ubiquitous among India's business-traveler class, many of whom wonder why they may be asked to give up their electronic lifelines for the sake of national security. "While some of the concerns needs to be looked at, the BlackBerry encryption and data-transmission systems are built on a certain amount of rigor, control and monitoring and are acceptable to many countries around the world for whom data security is paramount," says Prasun Basu, executive director of the Nielsen Co. in India and a self-confessed BlackBerry addict. "One needs to evaluate what's so different for India." Basu conveyed his message from Mumbai in a BlackBerry Messenger chat, of course.

The Indian government insists that it has no plans to snoop and will seek access to BlackBerry data only under certain situations and not invade citizens' privacy. "We do not want to be obstructionists," says Sachin Pilot, the junior Communications Minister. "We do not want to eavesdrop on private and business conversations of our citizens or corporates, but we cannot compromise on our security."

Having made concessions in other countries, RIM has set a precedent that it may have to follow in India. "When RIM was willing to address the security concerns of other countries, they will have to listen to us too," Pilot says. To break the logjam, the Canadian company has offered the Indian government access to metadata — data about the data — which will enable security agencies to intercept communication between two BlackBerry handsets without violating RIM's security and privacy policies. Metadata isn't of much use to Indian security officials; a text document's metadata may contain information about how long the document is, who the author is and when the document was written but will include nothing about what's inside the message.

But some experts believe that fears of terrorism by BlackBerry are overplayed. Terrorists will "use a mode that is virtually untraceable," Prasanto K. Roy, chief editor of CyberMedia, Asia's largest infotech publishing group, wrote recently in an article for the Indian website Rediff. But most e-mail on the BlackBerry is not, he notes. "The mail doesn't stay encrypted all the way. When it gets delivered to an external e-mail system such as Gmail or corporate mail, it gets decrypted — else the recipient wouldn't be able to read it. The exception is when you're not using a Gmail or a company mail ID but are sending pure BlackBerry mail. That's not merely one sent between two RIM devices, but where both From and To are BlackBerry IDs. That's rare."

Which raises an intriguing question. If India follows China and somehow quietly reaches the end of its standoff with RIM's BlackBerry, will New Delhi go after Google's Gmail next?