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RIM Establishes Indian BlackBerry Surveillance Lab

BlackBerry India
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RIM is reportedly aiding Indian authorities to legally access BlackBerry messages

Research in Motion (RIM) is helping Indian authorities monitor its BlackBerry services in that country after allegedly setting up a surveillance facility, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) citing people familiar with the matter.

The RIM facility was set up in January this year and is apparently based in Mumbai. It helps the Indian government carry out lawful surveillance of its BlackBerry services. According to the WSJ, Indian officials can submit the name of a suspect they want to wiretap, and RIM will return decoded messages for that individual, as long as it is satisfied the request has legal authorisation.

Lawful Intercepts

The Mumbai facility apparently deals with intercept requests for mostly consumer-facing services such as BlackBerry Messenger and email. However it is thought that BlackBerry enterprise email remains beyond the reach of Indian authorities, thanks to its higher levels of encryption.

BlackBerry has consistently asserted that it doesn’t have the keys to unlock enterprise email messages.

According to the Journal, the Indian authorities are more concerned with the consumer (not business) side of BlackBerry, but they are still not happy that they have no ability to intercept the messages directly themselves, and have to ask for RIM’s co-operation in each intercept request.

According to the WSJ, Indian authorities have even considered placing an Indian official on RIM’s premises in Canada to act on the nation’s surveillance requests.

RIM said it “continues to work very well” with the Indian government, reported the news service. “We are not operating under any deadlines and we believe the government of India is now applying its security policy in a consistent manner to all handset makers and service providers in India, which means that RIM should not be singled out any more than any other provider.”

Long Running Saga

It was in August 2010 when RIM’s operations in India first came under pressure from the government, which cited national security concerns that the highly-encrypted BlackBerry messages and emails makes them convenient for terrorists.

The Indian government imposed a deadline of 31 January 2011 for RIM to give it access to BlackBerry emails. RIM initially pleaded for 18-24 months to find a solution to the deadlock, but then in mid-January it announced that it had provided the Indian government with access to the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service and then, presumably, also set up the facility in Mumbai.

Indian officials were, on the surface at least, still unhappy with this and the Home Minister P Chidambaram insisted that RIM should give India greater control of the enterprise service. He also put pressure on Indian mobile operators to co-operate with intercepts.

In March 2011, Junior Telecoms Minister Sachin Pilot made a statement to the Indian parliament, saying that the government would continue to pressure RIM on getting access to corporate messages.

Middle East Crisis

India is not the only country where RIM has faced demands from national governments. In August 2010 for example, the United Arab Emirates said it was planning to block the sending of emails, accessing the Internet, and delivering instant messages to RIM’s Blackberry handsets.

Saudi Arabia also announced that it would prevent the use of the Blackberry-to-Blackberry instant messaging service. RIM publicly denied that it was willing to compromise over the issue, but it later emerged that it was holding ‘last ditch’ talks with Saudi Arabia and even to the last minute was ‘resisting Saudi demands’.

However in the end, in order to avoid a ban, RIM appeared to agree to let the Saudi government monitor email data.