So the die is cast. In a meeting on Thursday, India's home ministry asked the Department of Telecom (DoT) to read the riot act to mobile operators running BlackBerry services: Either provide full access to Indian law enforcement, or face a shutdown on Sep 1.
The terse release just said that union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai asked the DoT to tell service providers that Blackberry Enterprise Service (BES) and Blackberry Messenger Service be made accessible to law enforcement agencies Aug 31. Else these services would be blocked. The DoT is expected to convene a meeting of telecom operators after receiving a written communication from the home ministry (expected on Friday).
BES is the system used by most corporate BlackBerry users. The service requires special software in a company's own servers, to connect to the company email system. Four out of five BlackBerry handsets in India are on BES, so a shutdown of this means an effective shutdown of BlackBerry services in India. The other type of service from RIM is BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS), where an individual user can directly buy a BlackBerry handset with service from, say, Airtel, and set it up for his Gmail or company mail (usually for smaller companies).
On the other hand, BlackBerry messenger, while being very popular, is not as 'critical'. Even if it is shut down, BlackBerry can survive in the country: most corporate users primarily expect instant email from their BlackBerry handsets.
This is a government-mandated death threat. It's somewhere between very difficult and impossible for RIM to comply, depending on whom you believe.
The difficulty is at two levels. One, technical: RIM says its encryption for BES is so strong that no one else, not even RIM itself, can crack it. And two, in the precedent it would set. Every country would demand the same access, tearing apart the main differentiator, security, for the world's most popular mobile instant-mail service. (RIM says it has not given any special access to any government, though there are frequent rumours of the US agencies being treated differently.) And then RIM could also come under pressure from, say, China to allow access to emails on the Indian government networks...
The mini-release acknowledged that "Blackberry services like voice, SMS and BIS have been already made available". That is misleading. There is no voice or SMS on the BlackBerry networks. Phone calls and SMSs from BlackBerry handsets simply travel on the network of the local operator (such as Airtel or Reliance). So any call or SMS from any handset, BlackBerry or otherwise, would be handled in the same way - the operator would "allow access".
What does "allow access" mean? For SMS, it means Airtel would give a copy of the SMS to the law enforcement agency (SMS records are kept for at least three months). And call records (time, duration, number called) would be given. Actual phone calls are not recorded and stored, unless there is a prior court order for tapping.
The interesting point is the note about BIS. It suggests that RIM has already given Indian agencies access to this service - the email service used by individual (non-corporate) BlackBerry users. BIS is handled by RIM directly, with operators like Airtel just providing a pipe to it, unlike with BES where Airtel is actively involved in the BES server deployment and management. (RIM declined to comment.)
Yet neither home ministry nor the DoT is addressing a central issue: that BlackBerry email is not the only (or perhaps even preferred choice) for a terrorist: there are other, less traceable, means, including using a webmail service like Gmail: using it simply to store, rather than send, email messages. BlackBerry is a postpaid service, requiring identity and address information for billing. More anonymous mobile modes include SMS communication with disposable, prepaid SIM cards.
And while BlackBerry messenger can indeed become a means of real-time communication during a terror operation like 26/11, the solution to that is the same as for tackling any mobile communication in such an operation: use a high-power jammer. Which should be standard operating procedure for the next anti-terror operation for the National Security Guards: disconnect power and water, and switch on the jammers.