India wants access to BlackBerry encryption algorithms to fight terrorism

by Bharat Suneja

India’s half a million BlackBerry users may have to live with the prospect of the Indian government having easy access to their wireless communication.

India says it needs access to RIM’s encryption algorithms, used to encrypt email sent and received by BlackBerry smartphones, to fight terrorism. The Indian government is delaying a license to offer BlackBerry services to wireless carrier Tata Teleservices, and may cancel the licenses already issued to other Indian wireless carriers— Vodafone Essar, Bharti Telecom and Reliance Communications, if RIM doesn’t comply by March 31st. The Information Technology Act of 2000 provides the government of India the right to intercept electronic communications for security reasons.

It’s no secret that terrorists are increasingly using the internet and email to communicate. Bringing BlackBerry handhelds under the scope of lawful interception shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but it does pose interesting questions for RIM.

The Department of Telecom’s intent and its notice to carriers is anything but abrupt. The DoT had requested access some time last year. The March 31st deadline is an extension to the earlier deadline of December 31st. DoT officials are meeting with carrier execs and RIM officials to resolve the issue.

More in “BlackBerry under security scrutiny in India” on

What makes the whole episode more interesting are reports that the Indian government wants significantly weaker encryption keys to be used across the board. If true, this could make security of online banking and e-commerce transactions questionable, and may even pose threats to India’s growing outsourcing sector. ISP Association of India President Rajesh Chharia says “Routine check-ups are fine with us since the issue is one of national security. All ISPs must, and will, cooperate. What is of concern, though, is the fact that we have been asked to reduce the encryption from 128-bit to 40-bit, which is ridiculous.” (More in “BlackBerry security issue makes e-com insecure“).

As similar incidents involving India’s bureaucracy have proven in the past, better sense does eventually prevail in India (Read previous post: “Update: India blocks access to blogs“), but not before giving massive doses of anxiety attacks to those concerned.

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