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NEW DELHI, India — A corporate lawyer who deals with high-profile clients in the United States and Europe, Sunila Awasthi lives by her BlackBerry. But in the wake of an Indian government move to gain access to BlackBerry maker Research in Motion's proprietary encryption technology, she fears she may be spending more late nights at the office.
"Our main concern is confidentiality," Awasthi told GlobalPost. "We advise foreign companies in different jurisdictions and different time zones, so it's very convenient to access confidential information [by BlackBerry]. But if that confidentiality is discontinued, that convenience goes away instantly."
At least where the Indian government is concerned, that's what's about to happen. At an eleventh hour meeting with government officials Monday, Research in Motion (RIM) caved in to India's demands for access to users' emails and other data to avoid an immediate ban on its encrypted data services.
Under the agreement, RIM will immediately implement systems to grant "lawful access by law enforcement agencies" to customer data, India's Home Ministry said in a statement. The
regulatory bodies will evaluate the feasibility of this arrangement for the next 60 days, even as India presses forward with demands to force not only RIM, but also Google and Skype to set up servers for hosting customer accounts in India — which would facilitate easier access to private data and wire tapping of voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) phone calls.
In the meantime, Indian market leader Nokia pre-empted trouble with the announcement that it would move servers for its "push mail" service to India and allow access to India's security agencies.
"The processes here are very transparent, not opaque like in countries like China," said Pankaj Mohindroo, president of the Indian Cellular Association. "They've been given sufficient time by the government, and I think they've done the right thing."
BlackBerry is already starting to look like the Compuserve of the smartphone era thanks to Google's Android operating system, so the blow to its U.S. Department of Defense-certified encryption couldn't come at a worse time. And the leverage that India has exerted as the world's fastest growing mobile market is likely to provide more ammunition for other countries — including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia and Lebanon — which have also sought access to BlackBerry's encrypted data.
BlackBerry addicts like Romil Ratra, general manager of an international hotel, are just happy that they can keep thumbing. Was he relieved to hear RIM had averted a ban? "Very relieved," he said.
Ratra, whose been using a BlackBerry since the brand was first launched in India, says he uses his device constantly. "I'm on the phone a lot, plus I'm a social media addict, between Twitter and Facebook, and a million other things that keep coming up," he said.
"I'm not one of those guys who puts it off when I go to sleep; I leave it on."
In that respect, India is like everyplace else. But it does have some special characteristics that make some of the million-odd BlackBerry users a wee bit wary that the government has extorted its way to
getting the key to the code.
Awasthi, the lawyer, doesn't trust the government to keep her secrets, she says. India doesn't have any privacy laws that cover emails, apart from the general constitutional protections, and the precedent set for voice calls is hardly encouraging.
According to a recent expose by Outlook India, a weekly magazine, India's intelligence services routinely monitor citizens' mobile phones with technology that allows them to pluck conversations out of the air. Those checks and balances that do exist are flouted or manipulated to facilitate questionable wire taps — and wire tapping doesn't require a warrant. Police can get access to a variety of mobile information without a court order.
But it's not just criminals who come under the scanner. Monitoring systems around top hotels routinely pick up conversations between prominent corporate leaders discussing sensitive business dealings. And the only recourse available is too little, too late.
"You can say that we have the fundamental right to privacy under the constitution, but that means I have to go to the Supreme Court every time I want to see it enforced," said Awasthi. "That's not a
Other BlackBerry users are more sanguine about sharing their private data with government spooks.
"I'm not sure exactly how to react," said Ratra. "I don't think I'm happy that somebody is going to be able to monitor my mails, [but] if it's something that BlackBerry is already doing for North America, or Canada, or other countries, there's no reason that they shouldn't do it here."
Hardeep Sachdeva, another corporate lawyer, agrees. He argues that concerns that confidential information could leak from behind the government firewall are unfounded. Moreover, the difficult task of preventing terrorist attacks — not just investigating them after the fact — justifies some curtailment of citizens' fundamental right to privacy.
"Every system provider in this country should provide access to the authorities to ensure that the security of the nation is not compromised," Sachdeva said. "I don't see why BlackBerry should be an
But who will monitor the monitors? As recently as this April, when opposition Bharatiya Janata Party leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy argued that Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance government was misusing wiretaps to spy on political adversaries, and even their own unruly allies. "In the garb of tracking terror, the government is tracking politicians and even their cabinet ministers," Rudy said.
Lucky for them, most Indian pols aren't big on email.