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India holding firm on access to BlackBerry email

Last year India set a deadline of January 31, 2011, for BlackBerry maker Research in Motion to provide the Indian government access to encrypted communications on the BlackBerry service. Although RIM has provided a way for the Indian government to tap into messages sent using its consumer-level BlackBerry Messenger service, the company has insisted it cannot provide access to encrypted email on its enterprise services, since it doesn’t hold the encryption keys. However, India’s home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram tells The Wall Street Journal that the country is going to hold firm and “insist they give us a solution for enterprise service too.”

RIM has recently indicated it will not be able to comply with India’s demands for access to encrypted email service.

It’s not yet clear whether the Indian government will carry through on its threat to shut down BlackBerry service in the country if it cannot tap into encrypted email services, or whether it will grant yet-another extension in order for RIM to come up with a solution. India represents an enormous mobile phone market and a burgeoning hub for large enterprises and technology companies: RIM could survive being kicked out of India, but it would be at a competitive disadvantage , since competitors would leverage their ability to operate in India to squeeze RIM out of other markets.

RIM has consistently claimed there is no technological back door that enables it to turn over decrypted email messages from its enterprise services in response to lawful governmental requests, although the company has indicated in the past it can turn over the encrypted data. Industry speculation has centered on India imposing conditions on BlackBerry’s enterprise operations such that corporate users would be required to turn over their encryption keys to the government in order to use BlackBerry services. Technically, RIM still wouldn’t have a back door to the services…but, in that case, the Indian government would.

India is insisting on access to encrypted communications channels for fear militants and terrorists will use the services to coordinate activities and attacks. Numerous civil and human rights organizations have pointed out that the same monitoring technology can be used to repress free speech, political activism, and other lawful activities, and (of course) could be abused by corrupt agencies or as a result of lapses in security.

However, in a related development, neighboring Pakistan called on mobile operators to shut down BlackBerry service to foreign missions in the country, but quickly reversed the decision and allowed service to be restored. The Pakistani government did not immediately offer an explanation for why it initially ordered the service shut off.

[Image credit: World Economic Forum, photo by Norbert Schiller]

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