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Ready for the BlackBerry test?

If the government seeks propriety from private parties, it, too, must be scrupulously proper, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2011 18:13 IST
Pratik Kanjilal

It will be curtains for BlackBerry’s encrypted communications on August 31 after a meeting between the home ministry and BlackBerry service providers on Thursday fell through. The government requires all communications providers to allow surveillance of their networks and has been demanding encryption keys to BlackBerry’s servers from 2008, when the service became popular in India.

The request became an international joke because BlackBerry’s USP is that no one, not even its Canadian promoter Research in Motion, can snoop on messaging and enterprise traffic. Each enterprise client has their own encryption key, and no one else has it. But after it was discovered that the Mumbai attacks of 26/11 were coordinated with BlackBerrys, the request didn’t look so funny any more.

Now Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Algeria and Indonesia also want to look under BlackBerry’s hood and have threatened to bar its encrypted traffic. Since the leading Muslim countries are on this list, it is being said that the issue is illicit contact between the sexes. This could be a concern for some, but the fact that these countries are also hotspots on the world’s terrorist network points to security imperatives. On August 7, BlackBerry did a hurried deal with Saudi Arabia to set up a server in its territory after the government pulled the plug on 7 lakh subscribers for four hours. The government will now be able to track traffic, but it isn’t clear if it can read its content without encryption keys. Which is the point at stake in this contest between transparency and privacy in the interest of public security.

This game has been played out twice before, in banking and on the internet. Transparency won both times. The number of a Swiss bank account used to be as good as an encryption key, ensuring financial privacy that could be breached only with a Swiss court order resulting from trial for a specific financial crime. But Swiss privacy rules framed in 1934 were substantially weakened under international pressure following the use of numbered accounts for money laundering and tax evasion, and the furore over Nazi gold and the missing wealth of the Third World.

Similarly, anonymity (or pseudonymity) was an article of faith on the internet, on the premise that a new medium should permit people to forge new identities — on ‘Second Life’, for instance. This conviction was shaken by the discovery that violent child pornography was being anonymously traded on the Net. And then cybercrimes like credit card fraud and phishing became routine, terrorism embraced the Net and unconditional anonymity became hard to defend.

Almost all users of Swiss banks, the internet and BlackBerrys are decent people, but there is more than one reason why the BlackBerry is essential gear for corporates and politicians. Privacy rules must be written both for sinner and saint and though I am pro-privacy, I’m inclined to side with the government here. BlackBerry traffic should be opened to scrutiny with due process if there is just cause. These caveats are important in a country where illegal phone taps are common and result merely in political scandals, not the criminal conviction of ministers or officials who authorise them. If the government seeks propriety from private parties, it, too, must be scrupulously proper.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal