Why banning BlackBerry is not the answer?

What would the Indian Government do in case they have to monitor something and they don’t have the technological competence to do so? You guessed it right; BAN IT. That is exactly what it has threatened to do in its latest tussle with Canada-based Research in Motion (makers of BlackBerry phones).

And its not just BlackBerry. The government wants RIM, Skype, and Gmail to make available the data going through their networks in a readable format to the security agencies. Also, the Home Ministry has directed the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to put all the 3G plans on hold till it puts in place an infrastructure to monitor it. Now what is the logic of putting a spanner in the already delayed launch of 3G in India? Who is accountable for such gross incompetence? Accountability, it seems, is a word that should be taken off from Indian dictionaries.

The idea of this post was to rebuff the Indian Government’s arguments for monitoring these devices by raising the bogey of national security.

Let’s start with BlackBerry. The government wants to monitor two elements of the BlackBerry phones: BlackBerry Mail and BlackBerry Messenger

BB mail is securely transferred through BlackBerry Enterprise Servers (BES). RIM is the only company which manages data sent via its phones through its own global networks. In the case of other phones, like Apple iPhone, the data is managed by either the telecom operator or by customers. This is what makes BlackBerry unique.

The mails (official/business) sent using BES are most secure as that is one of the main reason why corporate organizations select BlackBerry over any other smartphone. BlackBerry’s contention that it does not have any master key to give the government a back door access to its system is true as the data sent through BB is encrypted at the BES located at the organization which uses it and is decrypted only at the BB user’s device. Hence if the government wants to access the data sent by BB users, it can directly approach the organizations that use BES for its communications.

The government’s contention that terrorists might use BB’s secured services to communicate also falls flat because of the extensive identification process that one has to undergo to get his/her BES services activated.

And now that RIM has agreed to give ‘lawful’ access to the security agencies what is the guarantee that the government will not spy on legitimate communication (personal, business, legal) between citizens. Given the Indian Government’s record in illegally tapping phones, there is a huge possibility of them using the access to BB devices to monitor communications of business leaders, journalists, social activists, political rivals, and bureaucrats among others.

RIM has said that it will only allow Indian security agencies to legally monitor the data of its subscribers, which the latter is not willing to consider.

“The only time it allows carriers to access the data sent via BlackBerry devices is in the case of national security situations, and even then, only as governed by the country’s judicial oversight and rules of law,” RIM said in a statement.

Will monitoring BB’s data services on a real-time basis decrease the possibility of terror attacks? Some terrorists may have been using modern technology but India’s failure in preventing terror attacks primarily has been poor intelligence gathering on the ground. The manner in which the terror cells (sponsored by Pakistan) operate in India is so sophisticated that one cannot penetrate it without proper human intelligence.

This brings us to the point of government’s efforts to monitor Gmail data too. The argument for doing so is same as it is with BB. But does the government know that even if they monitor mails, people can still pass on messages using the same mailbox without getting detected. The modus operandi (shown in the movie Traitor) is very easy.

  • Log in to the mail account (for eg: Yahoo, Gmail)
  • Write a mail
  • Once complete, save it instead of sending it (remember, do not press send)
  • Log out

Give the user details to the person who you want to communicate with and he/she can login and read the mail in the “drafts” folder. This way the mails are undetected as they are not sent.

The Indian Government and the security agencies have to realize that monitoring communications is one way of getting raw intel data but not a sure-shot way to prevent terror attacks or catch terrorists.

Had it been the case, the US government would have captured Osama bin Laden by now. With billions of dollars in budget, sophisticated surveillance equipment, satellites, drones and soldiers on the ground, the US has no clue about where Osama is. The last time they tracked Osama was when he used a satphone. After locating his position based on the tracking data, the US launched cruise missiles to kill him but he survived. Since then, the most wanted terrorist has never used a satphone. And even if he has, nobody knows when and how.

The point I am trying to make is one can invest in electronic surveillance and all that but it is not a full proof way to secure our country. This is substantiated by a report which has prepared a list of top 10 intelligence agencies of the world. Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) — one of the least funded agency among the top 10 — is the most feared intelligence agency in the world, whereas the US’s CIA — despite being the largest and richest — stands at No. 4 position.

India’s R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing), by the way, stands at No. 9 in the list.

2 thoughts on “Why banning BlackBerry is not the answer?

  1. Have a small correction to make…I believe CIA is heavily funded…To say ISI is one of the least funded is a mistake…Please check the fund that Pakistan spends on security…And I believe you have not taken into account the unaudited funds which ISI receives…

    1. ISI may be getting more funds than its officially allocated quota, but compared to CIA its still paltry. Pakistan spends a lot on security but one cannot compare that with the billions of dollars that the US spends on its security needs. The comparison primarily was between the CIA and ISI with regard to funding they get and the output that comes out of it.

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