RIM vs. India and Saudi Arabia: Let’s Make a Deal on Encrypted Data

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India could be inching closer to Saudi Arabia in reaching an agreement for Research in Motion (RIM) to comply with demands for access to the encrypted messages of BlackBerry customers.

Reuters cited an unidentified source in the Indian government as saying that RIM will provide a “technical solution for messenger and enterprise mail” next week. Also according to the source, a government technical team in India will then evaluate whether the unspecified solution will work

Citing national security issues, countries that include India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and several others have recently placed demands on RIM to provide government access to BlackBerry messages, threatening to shut down RIM’s services in their respective nations if RIM does not meet government-stipulated deadlines for compliance.

Agreement Reached Between RIM and Saudi Arabia
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that RIM had reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to continue messaging services in that nation.

Although the two parties haven’t divulged the terms of the deal, one human rights activist charges that RIM probably agreed to physically move its server inside the country, instead of routing calls through RIM’s headquarters in Canada.

Quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, Robert Guerra of Freedom House said that moving the server inside the country would also mean giving the Saudi government a copy of the encryption key, thereby enabling the government to decode part of the data and voice streams.

Although government privileges like these are already slowed in the U.S. and other Western countries, Saudi Arabia is ranked “Not Free” in the Freedom House 2010 world index, meaning that it lacks the same human rights and due process standards, according to Guerra. Guerra also contended that RIM is caving in to Saudi Arabia and putting its business interests first.

The nations threatening to ban RIM differ in their specific demands and deadlines, as well as in their cited security concerns. Unlike other countries, which are asking for government access to both emails and SMS text messages, Saudi Arabia wants access to SMS text messages only.

End-of-month Deadline for RIM in India
In India, RIM is up against an end-of-month deadline for providing access to emails and text messages. The Indian government is anxious to tighten security prior to the Commonwealth Games in October and to ward off any terrorist attacks that might spring from next door neighbor Pakistan. A 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai killed 166 people.

The government of India sent letters to the country’s 15 telecom operators this week, ordering them to make BlackBerry messages open to interception by government security agencies or risk suspension of their licenses, according to an account in the Financial Times (FT).

Indian telecom companies told FT that they doubt they have the technology at hand for selectively blocking BlackBerry services. As an alternative, it would be possible to suspend domestic BlackBerry phones from the network, but even so, this wouldn’t keep BlackBerry customers from elsewhere from using roaming services within India.

The government’s order to the telecom operators would only take effect if India is unable to reach an agreement with RIM.

India had reportedly earlier asked RIM to help them decrypt suspicious messages, but RIM had rejected the request based on company policies against allowing third-parties to read information sent over its network.

A Deal Less Likely in the UAE?
Prospects for a deal between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and RIM could be less likely. Critics charge that the UAE government is repressive, and that the country decided to ban RIM’s services there because several youths had been arrested for using BlackBerry messaging to organize a peaceful protest.

Regardless of whether RIM might be moved to resist the UAE’s demands on the basis of human rights the majority of UAE residents think their government’s threatened ban on BlackBerry services will ultimately go through.

In a recent poll, 66% said a cutoff of BlackBerry services is “likely,” and 41% said they support the government’s plan to shut off BlackBerry services unless the kingdom is allowed to monitor data.

Under the deadline imposed by the UAE, however, RIM has until October 11 until a ban would go into effect, giving the two parties more time to negotiate.

Other countries which have placed demands on RIM to let them monitor BlackBerry data include Lebanon, Algeria, and Kuwait, Bahrain and Indonesia, for example.




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