In the heat and dust raised by the Commonwealth Games and the Babri Masjid title suit, BlackBerry stepped almost unnoticed over the September 22 deadline for giving the Indian government access to its encrypted network for security reasons. Meanwhile, the issue has assumed global proportions and in India, it has become a matter of public interest. At least five governments which propose to ban the service are watching events in India. And everyone who uses encrypted communications has become an interested party, even if they have never seen a BlackBerry.
But the debate has become so confused that we need to clear the air. First, the government wants to scrutinise not only BlackBerry but any encrypted service. The watchlist includes anyone who uses Gmail or Skype, or makes financial transactions over the internet or cellphones. A recent UN report claims that during the recession, cash-strapped banks had allowed $383 billion to be laundered through their accounts, so why shouldn’t banking transactions be watched?
Second, the government’s battle is not with BlackBerry but with itself. It is a battle between its duty to protect us from terrorism and crime and the countervailing duty to protect our privacy. However, the government’s tone is discomforting. Officials have used words like “free”, “complete” and “unrestricted” to describe the government’s right to access private communications. The word ‘unconditional’ never found utterance, but the tone said it all — the government wants to trawl the sea of personal data in the ether, and not seek specific access to suspects after due legal process. It regards surveillance as the norm rather than the exception.
Indiscriminate surveillance is illegal in a democracy, but officials will privately assure you that everyone does it all the time. But on closer scrutiny, ‘everyone’ turns out to be the Americans. They do fund the National Security Agency for massive communications surveillance but that’s no rationale, since the US is certifiably mad about security. The issue is, do we want India to become a surveillance state, too?
BlackBerry gave access to its messenger on September 1 but maintains that it cannot unlock enterprise email. The system is designed so that even Blackberry can’t snoop on its own network. That sounds incredible in jugaad country, where life itself is a workaround, but BlackBerry has its back to the wall. Its encryption makes it essential bling for people with secrets — government officials, spooks, corporate executives, philanderers, thugs and terrorists. The government is officially concerned about the last two, and with reason. But its minions wouldn’t be very upset if they got the goods on the others as well. Information is power, and power very readily liquefies into cash, which is such a comforting thing to line your pockets with.
What happens if BlackBerry’s encrypted email is banned? Nothing. People will use Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), which offers stronger encryption than BlackBerry’s AES standard. Another option is steganography, the art of concealing data in unexpected formats like photographs. Terrorists will use anonymising software which make it look like you’re in Kamchatka while you’re in Karachi. So by forcing encrypted communications services to open up, are we giving away our privacy for nothing? That is the real question that the BlackBerry issue raises.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal