BlackBerry ‘Wins’ Battle in India

It’s hard to tell if this battle is really over or not …

Ban still looms despite temporary truce after maker RIM grants authorities access to ‘secure’ data passed between devices

The Indian authorities are suggesting that Research In Motion (RIM), maker of the popular BlackBerry device, has granted them access to ‘secure’ data passed between devices – which has staved off the threat of a ban there on features including email and instant messaging.

Without that access, a blanket of silence would have fallen across the approximately 800,000 BlackBerry devices in India yesterday. RIM was charged with providing a technological solution to assuage India’s security concerns about the devices: it was alleged that it could be too easily used by terrorists to organise attacks. Now, the deadline has been extended by 60 days, during which the latest concession will be evaluated – but the prospect of a blackout in India’s burgeoning mobile market still looms large.

But it is not just India where RIM has problems. The United Arab Emirates says it too will block BlackBerry services including email and Messenger by 11 October if it does not get access to encrypted messages. Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon are also reviewing the future of BlackBerry services in their countries; all cite security fears over the level of encryption afforded to communication sent between devices.

Why is the BlackBerry different from other smartphones in this regard? After all, there are plenty of those on sale in those countries – and they have not been threatened with a shutdown.

The reason lies in the BlackBerry’s unusual approach to sending and receiving emails, and its Messenger messages. BlackBerry devices access the internet and email through RIM’s own secure Network Operations Centres around the world – outside of the jurisdictions of countries in the Middle East – using specialist encryption.

BlackBerry Messenger and email differ in security levels, and email communication differs in the level of vulnerability depending on the server being used. Since the BlackBerry smartphone was launched in its first incarnation 11 years ago, it has remained the mobile of choice for business users and governments in countries across the world. With a perceived high level of security and functionality more suited to work-related use, RIM has built its reputation on enterprise use.

But RIM’s reputation for producing apparently impenetrable security solutions for high-profile customers – developed over a decade of mobile manufacturing – is at risk of being irreparably damaged by these new demands.

Last Thursday, RIM moved to show the Indian government it is serious about respecting security fears by saying it would lead an industry forum on how law enforcement agencies could lawfully access networks of communication while not encroaching on the security needs of private enterprises. That is all well and good, Indian government sources told Reuters, but the country wants technical solutions – and quickly. “We have seen the statement, but the government’s position does not change,” the source said. “We are hopeful they will come up with some solution.”

The risk that RIM will lose users’ trust

But the problem for RIM is that if it gains governments’ trust by giving them the means to access the messages, it will probably lose the trust – and perhaps the business – of users who have previously relied on its security as a way of avoiding the government’s gaze.

A university professor in UAE, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the Guardian: “The issue has received a lot of coverage in the UAE, but nothing compared to the conversation ‘on the ground’. Since virtually every young Emirati aged 17 to 40 owns a Blackberry and uses the Messenger feature constantly, this has been of great concern to them. I’d guess from what I’ve seen that around 30% accept this is good for security reasons while the rest believe it to be, at the least, intrusive.

“The latter believe it to be a product of a number of fairly high-profile Emiratis being attacked, derided, vilified via the Messenger broadcast service. Emiratis send many broadcasts daily and gossip runs through the community like wildfire.”

One of the biggest issues for the countries concerned is BlackBerry’s Broadcast Messenger function. Allowing users to send one-to-many messages to everyone in their contacts book has proved an effective and galvanising way of spreading commentary among communities, and is often used as a vehicle for anti-establishment opinion – something UAE authorities are becoming increasingly sensitive about, as traits of western culture become more prominent in the country’s business and tourist destinations. “The government essentially walks a very thin line between appearing liberal and modern to the west, and traditional and Islamic at home,” the professor said. “This issue cuts to the heart of the impossibility of doing both at once.”

The professor, who has owned a BlackBerry for more than a year, said he would have no qualms in switching to another device if RIM’s concessions infringed his right to communicate without fear of government interception. “I can only presume RIM is aware of this and is treading carefully,” he said. “I have faith in the company as it clearly does little for them to give up what makes the device so valuable – its security.”

He added: “This has been called another public relations disaster for the UAE, and I fail to see how someone will not point this out to the rulers. They are exceptionally concerned with remaining attractive in the eyes of Western governments – this has done them no favours with the business community internationally nor with the majority of locals and expats domestically.”

Falling foul of authority

Being on the wrong side of officialdom is not new to the Canadian manufacturer. Ironically, given the more recent bout of security concerns, three years ago the French government issued a ban on its officials using BlackBerry devices, citing fears communication could be intercepted by countries hosting the enterprise servers – namely Canada, the US and the UK. When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the BlackBerry he had used on the campaign trail was replaced with one with extra security, approved by the US National Security Agency, which was concerned about people trying to tap it.

Further east, security demands meant negotiations to take the BlackBerry to China and Russia took two years to resolve in both countries.

Unlike Indian officials, who have regularly slipped anonymous tidbits and soundbites to the news agencies, RIM has remained tight-lipped about its high-level negotiations. In a rare public statement addressed to customers earlier this month, the Canadian manufacturer said it cooperated with all governments to a consistent level: “Any claims that we provide, or have ever provided, something unique to the government of one country that we have not offered to the governments of all countries, are unfounded.”

The complexity and range of security solutions offered by RIM may be the source of the company’s friction with governments, says Gartner’s research vice-president, Leif-Olof Wallin. “What seems to be the big challenge is that lots of BlackBerry service and infrastructure is not very well understood by the regulatory authorities or by its users,” Wallin said. “Although physically it is the same device, it can be used in lots of difference scenarios.”

Financially, Wallin says, a ban in India would have negligible impact on RIM’s global business – despite it being the second-largest mobile phone market in the world, behind China. And in terms of reputation, RIM will emerge less tarnished than the countries involved. Analysts Informa Telecoms & Media forecasts that there will be more than 600,000 Blackberry sales in India this year and that India’s smartphone market will have reached approximately 12m – a figure forecast to grow to 40m by the end of 2015.

“At the very last minute there will be an agreement in place,” Wallin predicts. “Banning BlackBerry devices in the country has significant implications affecting foreign diplomats, foreign enterprise executives. It would be a major inconvenience to lots of important allies.”

Monitoring messages on a case-by case basis

That is not to say though that the Indian or UAE governments will be given free rein to tap peoples’ emails or Messenger messages. “Our interpretation of RIM’s public statements is that the company is willing to facilitate for mobile operators to lawfully intercept some messages,” says Wallin. “And BlackBerry will – on a case-by-case basis – be assisting network operators to decrypt BlackBerry Messenger, we think. With email between the BlackBerry and BlackBerry Enterprise Server, RIM simply does not have the capabilities to decrypt it and the encryption key is unique to each user. Though some of our clients are worried about what to do in case a ban is put in place, at large it looks like BlackBerry [manufacturer RIM] is benefiting from this as they’re not caving in – they’re being perceived as an honest secure company.”

Gail Thompson, owner of a landscaping company based in Dubai and a BlackBerry owner, said the ill thought-out warnings were not atypical of Emirates officials. “I’m expecting them to backpedal on it,” Thompson said. “I’m anticipating that like many other things [authorities will] issue a blanket mandate, then realise that it’s unworkable – that’s what I’m anticipating and what I’m hoping. I think they’ve had a kneejerk reaction to things.

“They need to take into account that business people are coming into the country and [the UAE doesn’t] need another hurdle in the economy,” Thompson said. “People are thinking that it’s ludicrous – we all understand that our emails and calls are monitored – I haven’t got a problem with that. We’re all aware of the fact our communication is monitored, its just part of our lives, I just thought it was anyway. I just think it’s a cultural thing out there.”

But that thinking is not shared by all of UAE’s half a million BlackBerry users. A teacher who has lived in the region for 10 years and wished to remain anonymous said she would blame RIM “for caving into demands that compromise people’s privacy” if greater government access was facilitated by the manufacturer.

“There is no alternative but switching to another device,” she said. “If [RIM] allowed the government to intercept messages, I wouldn’t be sending you this email.”

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