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RIM gives India access to BlackBerry messages


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After a battle lasting almost two years, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion has knuckled under to the Indian government, giving security forces in that country access to private instant messages.

Experts say the change, first reported in the newsmagazine India Today, could lead to similar access for other spy agencies and government bodies around the world — if they don’t already have it.

“Are they really going to do this for India, but not for Pakistan or China? Are they going to do this for Saudi Arabia, but not for Israel? That puts them in an uncomfortable position,” said David Fraser, a privacy law specialist at Halifax-based firm McInnes Cooper and past president of the Canadian IT Law Association.

“Once a company does it for one country, what’s stopping other countries from asking for it?” he said.

Those countries could include Canada, said Fraser, pointing to recent recommendations from the parliamentary justice and human rights committee that would require telecommunications carriers and equipment makers to decrypt data for law enforcement agencies if asked.

Citing Indian security agencies, India Today reported Saturday that RIM, based in Waterloo, Ont., had installed a server for the company’s popular BBM instant messaging service in India.

BBM messages are protected using 256-bit encrypted data. While the server was installed in February, technical glitches and wrangling between RIM and the Indian government had kept BBM messages effectively private. That wrangling and those glitches have been resolved, the magazine reported under the headline “No secrets on BlackBerry: Govt gets its way on tapping popular messenger service.”

In response to questions about the Indian report, a RIM spokesperson was unable to confirm or deny the story and directed the Star to the company’s policy on “Lawful Access Principles,” found in RIM’s 2011 corporate responsibility report.

“RIM is committed to conducting its business in accordance with recognized industry standards of business and social responsibility in the countries in which we operate,” the preamble to the lawful access section reads. “RIM will continue to evaluate the markets in which we operate, we will engage and express our views to government and we will continue to operate in a principled manner.”

Another part of the section says RIM “maintains a consistent global standard for lawful access requirements that does not include special deals for specific countries.”

RIM’s BlackBerry smartphone has been losing market share in many countries to Apple’s iPhone and others running Google’s Android operating system.

A RIM spokesperson told India Today the firm was still in talks with Indian officials.

“We are holding talks with the government, but there has been no issue from our side regarding accessibility to BBM services ever since our server was installed in the country,” the paper quoted the spokesperson as saying.

RIM’s decision in India could open the floodgates, says Kevin Dede, a longtime tech industry research analyst at Auriga USA.

“The precedent has been set and many autocratic governments will want that control over their population,” said Dede.

While India may be the first country granted official access to some of RIM’s data, other countries — including the U.S. — may well have beaten them to the punch, Dede believes.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the (National Security Administration) or FBI already has this ability, especially after the Patriot Act,” said Dede, referring to the post-9/11 security legislation which gave U.S. security services greater ability to intercept communications.

It’s no great surprise that India has been persistent in its desire to crack BBM’s security shell, Dede added.

“India has really wanted this kind of access since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai,” said Dede.

“I’m sure other countries would want that kind of access if they could get it,” agreed Ken Wong, a marketing professor at the Queen’s University School of Business and veteran technology watcher. Still, Wong believes other countries don’t have RIM’s official permission to tap into the BBM network.

“If it turns out it’s already happened, that would be huge, because RIM’s had a pretty solid stance against giving access to its data,” said Wong.

As for whether privacy still matters in a world where so many people are plugged in and sharing the tiniest details of their life, Fraser has no doubt.

“Just because some people want to over-share doesn’t mean we should have to give up our privacy,” he said. “We have a role for privacy to play in this country, and it’s very easy to incrementally chip away at that.”

Last week, RIM CEO Thorsten Heins announced a fourth-quarter loss of $125 million, and said the company was reviewing its strategic options, which could include licensing its technology to other companies or a possible sale.

Heins took over in January after the resignation of longtime co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. Balsillie stepped down from RIM’s board of directors last week.


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