India squeezes BlackBerry; onus on telecom firms
New Delhi, August 11, 2010
India may temporarily shut down BlackBerry services if New Delhi's concerns about security are not addressed in a meeting between the government and mobile phone operators on Thursday, government sources said.
The latest ultimatum for Blackberry maker Research In Motion comes a day after the Canadian company agreed to hand over user codes that would let Saudi authorities monitor its BlackBerry Messenger, as it seeks to stop the kingdom from silencing the service, a source close to the talks said on Tuesday.
Indian authorities fear that the popular BlackBerry email and messaging services could be misused by militants as security agencies cannot access the messages sent through these services.
India has cracked down on the entire mobile phone market following the Mumbai attacks in 2008, which killed 166 people. Pakistani militants used mobile and satellite phones to coordinate the attacks.
India's home (interior) ministry will press for some deadline to be fixed for RIM to share encryption details. "There definitely could be talk of some deadline and a proposal to take strong action on BlackBerry services during the meeting," a government official, who declined to be named, said on Wednesday.
U K Bansal, India's internal security chief confirmed a meeting would take place with mobile operators on Thursday but it was not clear if RIM, which has been negotiating with the government, would take part in the meeting.
The responsibility to meet Indian security requirements rests with mobile phone operators rather than RIM. RIM, unlike rivals Nokia and Apple, operates its own network through secure services located in Canada and other countries such as Britain.
India, like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and some other countries, has sought access to encrypted Blackberry communication.
India's security establishment took a hardline view on RIM's stance that it does not possess a "master key" to intercept data traffic on BlackBerry, insisting it needs access to encrypted messages in a "readable format."
Bharti Airtel and Vodafone's India unit are the largest providers of BlackBerry services in India, the world's fastest growing market and key for RIM. There are more than 635 million mobile phone subscribers in India, second only to China.
Indian officials said they were also verifying reports that RIM has agreed to hand over coveted "codes" to users' phones to try to avert a ban on its Messenger service in Saudi Arabia.
Another senior Indian government official told Reuters that mobile phone operators could be asked to shut down RIM's Enterprise Email and Messenger services temporarily as a last alternative, if RIM does not agree to offer access to data.
"If they cannot provide a solution, we'll ask (mobile) operators to stop that specific service. The service can be resumed when they give us the solution," the source said.
If enforced, an estimated one million users in India would only be able to use these devices for calls, text messages and the Internet. RIM has said BlackBerry security is based on a system where the customers create their own key and the company neither has a master key nor any "backdoor" to allow RIM or any third party to gain access to crucial corporate data.
"As of now there is nothing more to comment on this issue," a RIM India spokesman said on Wednesday, when asked if a breakthrough was in sight. Indian officials say RIM has proposed to help India track emails, without sharing encryption details, which security officials say is not enough. -Reuters