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    South Asia
     Mar 28, 2008
India hungers for BlackBerry juice
By Raja M

MUMBAI - An Indian government request for access to encryption codes that would let it check e-mails from users of BlackBerry-enabled mobile phones is raising concerns whether the demand will damage privacy rights. Also in the firing line is the country's US$1.7 billion and growing e-commerce market, such as online banking and credit card transactions.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has requested access to BlackBerry algorithms ostensibly to monitor terrorist communications. The issue is being thrashed out in the run-up to the March 31 expiry date of BlackBerry's operating license.

The number of BlackBerry users in India, the world's second-fastest growing mobile-phone market, is growing along with the country's fast-expanding economy. About 8.77 million new


 

mobile-phone connections were made in January 2008 and the country expects to have over 500 million mobile-phone users within two years.

BlackBerry, a front-runner in offering portable Internet access, has an estimated 400,000 Indian users, among a worldwide subscriber base of 14 million, according to company data, and its users would include India's most powerful politicians, industrialists, media professionals, corporate executives and senior police officials - a treasure house also for political eavesdropping.

A meeting between telecom industry representatives and government officials on March 14 to thrash out the controversy passed off relatively peacefully, with the government dismissing heavy-handed solutions. "We are keen to resolve the issue at the earliest, but there is no question of banning the BlackBerry services," telecommunications ministry secretary S Behura told the media.

Even so, India has given Research In Motion (RIM), which owns BlackBerry, and the country's telecom companies 15 days to enable monitoring of the contents transmitted on BlackBerrys or stop the service, the Press Trust of India reported this week.

Canada-based RIM was non-committal on whether with it will part with computer algorithms needed to decode BlackBerry messages. Srilata Venkatraman, general manager, operations Digiqom Solutions, which handles press relations for RIM in India, responded to Asia Times Online with a terse official statement that said, "RIM operates in more than 130 countries around the world and respects the regulatory requirements of governments. RIM does not comment on confidential regulatory matters or speculation on such matters in any given country."

Rajesh Chharia, president of the New Delhi-based Internet Service Providers Association of India, termed the government move as "ridiculous". He told local media that while routine check-ups "are fine with us" if questions of national security are raised, he was concerned about Internet service providers being "ridiculously" asked to reduce encryption from the global standard of 128-bit for online transactions to 40-bit. This makes e-security intrusions and fraud much easier. The RIM network uses the more advanced 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), prompting the government to ask for the encryption decoding algorithm.

Encryption involves converting information into a secure format that is accessible legibly only to the authorized recipient who holds a cryptographic key that enables decryption of the message. The loss of the guarantee of sender-receiver privacy that encryption allows will make e-commerce such as money transfers very difficult, say industry players.

"When someone asks for the 128-bit encryption standard to be lowered, then e-commerce is at risk," said V Ramachandran, director general of the Cellular Operators Association in India. Ramachandran told Asia Times Online that his association is involved in mediation efforts between the government and RIM to resolve the issue.

The BlackBerry clash arose when the government refused permission for Tata Group to operate a wireless mobile phone Internet service similar to BlackBerry. The authorities then asked for BlackBerry algorithms to decode encrypted emails, supposedly as a security measure in response to government agencies' claims that terrorists are increasingly turning to Internet-related communication.

RIM had initially been quoted in the media saying that such a request has not come from any other country. The Indian move comes soon after the Pakistani government shut down local access to social networking site Facebook, ostensibly on religious grounds, raising questions as to whether the sub-continent's Big Brothers are getting more paranoid about the Internet and are using national security and religion as pretexts.

Internet-related security has been an increasingly strident issue in India in recent years following reports of terrorists using cyber-cafes to communicate with each other. Cyber-cafe customers in metropolitan centers such as Mumbai and Chennai are now required to submit personal address and telephone contact details, while some Internet parlor owners in New Delhi demand to see police-verifiable proofs of identity such as a driving license or passport photocopy.

While security concerns are legitimate, so too are fears that powerful electronic snooping can be misused. Both India's central and state governments are periodically mired in allegations of phone-tapping opposition politicians and business leaders. On March 10, the Trinamool Congress party chief Mamata Banerjee in Parliament accused the central government of tapping her phone.

The South Indian daily Deccan Herald in January ran a front-page report with mobile phone numbers of opposition politicians, journalists and others that were allegedly being tapped by the intelligence wing of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

A senior official from the Internet and Mobile Association of India who wished to be unnamed told Asia Times Online that matters involving PKI (Public Key Infrastructure, or the encryption mechanism for security of public networks and issuing online security certificates) are actually with the Department of Information Technology, and not with the Department of Telecommunications.

The official wondered why the Department of Telecommunications was trespassing and why there are no protests from both the Department of Information Technology and its agency, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), which is directly responsible for India's communications and information infrastructure security. CERT tracks Internet security violations, online crimes, studies trends, investigates specific incidents, publishes a monthly security bulletin on its website and posts solutions to plug security holes. The latest CERT bulletin reports no alarming data to justify the government pushing any panic buttons.

Local media have also reported that the Department of Telecommunications is considering asking RIM and cellular phone operators such as Vodafone, Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications to create a six-month long mirror image of all e-mails and data sent on BlackBerry and similar devices in India, a move that, besides being of dubious legality, could be a logistic nightmare given that India's Internet and cellular phone-using population is increasing by millions each month.

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