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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

India Chases BlackBerry Data

NEW DELHI—India's government is in discussions with companies that use Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry to gain access to employees' secure communications when seen as necessary, said a top Indian official.

Home Secretary G.K. Pillai also dismissed reports that the smartphone maker's services will be blocked if the government's surveillance demands aren't met by the end of January.


Agence France-Presse/Getty Image

BlackBerry maker Research in Motion says it doesn't have the ability to provide enterprise-encryption keys.



"We're trying to find solutions where everybody's interests are in one sense protected," Mr. Pillai said during an interview. "It's going to take a little time, because it's a new technology."

The secure nature of BlackBerry's corporate, or enterprise, email service has been one of its big selling points for business and government users. But that feature has been problematic for countries that say they can't intercept BlackBerry emails.

RIM, based in Waterloo, Ontario, has been engaged in a high-stakes tug of war with various countries including India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which had threatened to ban BlackBerry services that they couldn't monitor. RIM settled with some countries, but negotiations with India have continued, with its government citing heightened national-security concerns as reasons for needing to unlock encrypted messages. RIM has maintained that only its corporate customers have the ability to unlock secure email messages, and now India has initiated talks with some of those companies.

"We've had a round of meetings with the companies," Mr. Pillai said. He added that their response has been, " 'If you tell us you've got a suspect from our company who is a national security issue,' " the company will provide the necessary access.

Mr. Pillai didn't say which companies had discussions with the Home Ministry, which oversees domestic-security issues.

RIM already has provided a solution for its BlackBerry Messenger chat service that will be in place by the end of January, Mr. Pillai said, and gaining lawful data access to BlackBerry's corporate-email service will likely take longer than January because of the technology involved.

"If we can get the data as real-time as possible, that's good enough for me," Mr. Pillai said.

But he cautioned that if he doesn't eventually get a satisfactory technical solution—either through BlackBerry directly or its corporate customers—"then that service will then go, because I can't afford to have a black hole."

A spokesman for RIM in India cited the company's Dec. 3 statement, in which it said, "RIM has no ability to provide the customers' encryption keys" for BlackBerry enterprise email. The statement also said India had agreed RIM shouldn't be "singled out" from other companies with secure data services running on corporate networks and that any new moves to obtain lawful access to that data should be applied industrywide.

Some Indian media reports have said that Jan. 31 is the deadline for BlackBerry to comply with the government's surveillance requirements, after which RIM would face a service shutdown. But Mr. Pillai said that date is "more of a target" than a hard deadline.

Mr. Pillai's comments, the most detailed yet by the government on its deliberations over BlackBerry, come as good news for RIM as it tries to maintain its position in India, a market with 688 million wireless subscribers and increasing demand for advanced smartphones such as BlackBerrys.

RIM has more than 50 million subscribers globally but doesn't release figures for India.

The Indian government earlier this year threatened to ban BlackBerry corporate-email service and BlackBerry Messenger because their high levels of encryption—or data scrambling—made them too difficult for intelligence agencies to intercept.

India first raised publicly the prospect of a BlackBerry service ban in August, pressing RIM to make available encrypted corporate email data for certain users at the government's request. The government said it wanted a solution by Aug. 31 but later stretched the deadline as RIM promised modifications.

India can already monitor phone calls, text messages and consumer email on BlackBerrys, just as it can do for other telecommunications services in the country.

Various intelligence and investigative agencies have authority to initiate landline or mobile-phone wiretaps of suspects in cases ranging from terrorism to drug-trafficking, with the approval of Mr. Pillai in the Home Ministry.

A board that includes the telecom secretary, cabinet secretary and law secretary review Mr. Pillai's authorizations every two weeks, he said.

India's domestic surveillance capabilities have been in the spotlight in recent weeks after wiretapped phone conversations between a corporate lobbyist and powerful Indian politicians and journalists were leaked to the local media.

Mr. Pillai said he approved the wiretap as part of an investigation into tax-evasion and potential connections to a controversial allocation of mobile- phone spectrum by the Indian telecom ministry. He said government agencies are investigating how the leak of the recordings happened.

Mr. Pillai said about 6,000 to 8,000 wiretaps are happening in India at any given time, with roughly 80% aimed at gleaning information about potential militant activity in the restive Himalayan region of Kashmir, troubled northeastern states and areas affected by a widespread Maoist insurgency. Only about 3% to 5% are for white-collar investigations, he said.

Mr. Pillai said he will likely pursue some changes to the country's telecom laws to clarify the government's authority for intercepts of highly secure corporate communications, part of a broader set of changes related to lawful intercept policy and privacy.

He said the government has also initiated discussions with other communications providers whose services it has had trouble gaining access to, including Google Inc. and Skype. The government has received assurances from all players it has reached out to that they will do whatever possible to respond to lawful surveillance requests, he said.

A spokesman for Skype said the company hasn't been contacted by Indian authorities.

A spokeswoman for Google India said, "We evaluate requests on a case by case basis. Our goal is to provide our users access to information and also to protect the privacy of our users...Whenever we receive a request, we first check to make sure it meets both the letter and spirit of the law before complying."

Mr. Pillai said the government has faced a challenge getting up to speed on new technologies and keeping up with the "bad guys" as they try to take advantage of every loophole in India's surveillance capabilities.

"Technology is changing," he said. "The crooks are always one step ahead."

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