India’s Aug 31 deadline for access to BlackBerry data services

New Delhi, Aug 12 (IANS) India Thursday set Aug 31 as the deadline for telecom operators to allow access to decoded data communications via BlackBerry devices to law enforcement agencies, just as they have access to SMS messages and phone calls.

‘If a technical solution is not provided by Aug 31, 2010, the government will review the position and take steps to block these two services from the network,’ said a statement by the interior ministry after a meeting chaired by Home Secretary G.K. Pillai.

‘The meeting also took note of the fact that the BlackBerry services like voice, SMS and BIS (internet access) have been made available to law enforcement agencies,’ added the statement, issued after the meeting with the top brass of intelligence agencies.

The basic voice and SMS services on BlackBerry, like what is available in an average mobile phone, will not be affected, officials said.

The development came just a few hours after a team of officials from Canada’s Research in Motion (RIM), the developers of BlackBerry, called on Home Minister P. Chidambaram, amid government concern over possible misuse of the security features of such devices.

‘This was a courtesy call,’ Chidambaram said in a brief reply to queries from reporters outside his North Block office after his meeting with the delegation led by Robert Crow, RIM’s vice president for industry, government and university relations.

At the meeting convened by the home secretary, those present included senior officers of the Intelligence Bureau, another intelligence gathering agency, the National Technical Research Organisation, and the Department of Telecommunications.

‘The meeting asked the Department of Telecom to convey to the service providers that two Blackberry services, namely business enterprises services and messenger Services, be made accessible to law enforcement agencies by Aug 31,’ said the statement.

This was after inputs were sought from the state-run telecom services provider Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) on how to tackle the issue.

Research in Motion declined immediate comment. ‘Let us first examine what exactly is the order, before we comment,’ Satchit Gayakwad, the spokesperson for the India operations of Research in Motion, told IANS.

Curiously, the home ministry had earlier convened a meeting with all BlackBerry service providers to make it clear they were bound by the licence agreement to allow security agencies access to all forms of communication that pass through their networks, officials said.

The government also wanted to make it clear that the intention was not to intrude into the privacy of a BlackBerry device user but ensure that the country’s security concerns are not compromised by misuse of the device by terrorists and insurgents, they added.

‘No cooperation was forthcoming from RIM. We were moving around in circles. So we were left with no option. The country’s security cannot be compromised at any cost,’ said a senior official in the home ministry.

Research in Motion has shipped over 100 million BlackBerry devices till date, with some 46 million active subscribers through 550 telecom carriers in more than 175 countries.

The company does not share country-specific data, but the number of BlackBerry users in India is estimated at around one million.

The company had said earlier that while it respected the regulatory requirements of governments and security and privacy needs of corporate users and other consumers, encryption of data was not something unique to BlackBerry devices alone.

‘We do not possess a master key or something, nor do we have a back door in the system to allow even us, let alone a third party, to gain unauthorised access to the key, or any corporate data, sent via BlackBerry devices,’ Gayakwad had told IANS.

‘RIM cannot accommodate any request for a copy of a customer’s encryption key, since at no time does RIM, or any wireless network operator or any third party, ever possess a copy of the key.’

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