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ITU Head Weighs In on BlackBerry Access

In an interview with the Associated Press, International Telecommunications Union secretary-general Hamadoun Toure said BlackBerry maker Research in Motion should supply customer data to law enforcement agencies around the world, characterizing the governments’ needs as “genuine” concerns that cannot be ignored.

The ITU is primarily concerned with regulating global radio spectrum usage, supervising telecommunications standards processes, and helping regulate communication satellite orbits and transmission. The agency has no formal regulatory power separate from its constituent member states; however, Toure’s comments certainly reflect the general sentiments of the ITU’s 192 members.

Canada’s Research in Motion has recently faced regulatory issues in a number of countries over encrypted communications handled by its BlackBerry services, with governments like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Indonesia, and Lebanon all insisting that their governments be permitted access to BlackBerry users’ communications. Governments fear the encrypted services could be used by militants and terrorists; civil libertarians argue that authoritarian regimes could use access to encrypted communications to repress free speech, opposing political views, and/or content the government deems immoral or subversive.

Part of the governments’ concerns have centered on RIM’s storage of user communications in data centers in North America or the United Kingdom; RIM appears to have assuaged some concerns in Saudi Arabia by locating servers there, and seems to be working on a similar solution in India. However, RIM has insisted that there is no back door to its encryption technology: decryption keys are created by its users, and are only known to them. RIM has pointed out that the approach is not unique to BlackBerry technology: a good portion of Internet traffic—including financial transactions, VPNs, ecommerce, and more—are encrypted using similar technology.

And, indeed, there is evidence that governments will shortly be looking to access to communications beyond BlackBerry technology: reports have India looking at requiring access to Google services and Skype if those companies want to continue operating in India.

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