Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian manufacturer of the now ubiquitous BlackBerry handsets, has indicated that it might have a technical solution to India’s need to peep into its messaging server. But the trickier question of intercepting mail in its highly encrypted enterprise servers is open even after the government imposed a show-or-leave deadline. Since most servers initiating corporate or government email are located within the host country, a solution should make itself available if the telecom regulator were to hold mobile service providers to their surveillance obligations. If indeed the Indian government is using BlackBerry as a test case to gain lawful access to private data travelling on other scrambled networks, the solutions provided by RIM should enable it to formulate a policy response to security imperatives.
That response must be guided by the legitimate concerns of an RIM, a Google, or the countless providers of internet telephony. Principally, that access to their data must be lawful, with judicial oversight, and that such interception doesn’t jeopardise the fundamental architecture of the network. India’s code-breaking abilities are on display in its brinkmanship with RIM. It, thus, will have to fall back on law to be privy to the more secure private networks of the future. This cannot be good from an intelligence-gathering perspective — we will always remain behind the curve — but it is the best we can do. Even to get to that point India will have to prove it’s responsible about whom it bugs.
It may be tempting to use India’s rising clout in the world economic order to try and prise open proprietary technologies. This must be tempered. The million-odd BlackBerry handsets in the country could be a potent argument for RIM to bare its content. But their users are at the top of India’s telephony food chain and using them as a bargaining chip is fraught. The government is trifling with a productivity-enhancing tool that helps India close the gap with the digital haves. India needs all the technological enablers it can lay its hands on to catch up with the developed world. The heft we are throwing around is in large measure a result of our ability to adopt newer products and processes that galvanise supply to catch up with the country’s emerging demand for all things from cellphones to automobiles. Till we acquire the capabilities to develop them ourselves, there is a limit to how much we can negotiate with high-end technology vendors.