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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Black Berry - Govt can access your e-mail now

A couple of decades ago, people used to call on fixed landlines – some did not even have telephone at home.  Most may not even know or remember that there was a facility known as “PP” – particular person facility when you book a trunk call. The Telephone Dept. would enquire whether the person whose name has been provided is available, and only then connect the call !!  - still people were able to talk to each other, communicate whatever they wanted to and work still went on without hassles. In the age of mobiles, quite often, the person may not be reachable, may not pick up after long rings, may not pick up unknown numbers, simply ignore the call, or would pick up to say ‘in a meeting and would call again’ but would never call back and you rue that communication is not easy !!!!!

In the modern google age, some still would relate blackberry to that edible fruit in the Rubus genus of the Rosaceae family, native throughout the temperate northern hemisphere and South America but the Company Research In Motion Limited (RIM)  - the  Canadian multinational telecommunications company headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, is known because of this product – blackberry.  

Of course lot has changed from the original device 850 introduced at Munich, Germany, in 1999 at which time it was a two way pager.  The reason for the monumental growth is easily explainable.  Even at that stage it integrated enterprise email, but perhaps a mobile e-mail device was not the one most sought after those days !  Interesting to read that the  850  model actually ran on two AA batteries.  2003 saw the birth of the smartphone in Blackberry which supported push e-mail, mobile telephone, text messaging, Internet faxing, Web browsing and other wireless information services.  Now it virtually stands on top of smart phone devices especially the push mail facility  while maintaining a high level of security through on-device message encryption. Push email is so called because mail is pushed out to your handset as soon as it is received without your needing to download email periodically.  BlackBerry devices support a large variety of instant messaging features, including BlackBerry Messenger.
black berry : the present one and the earliest one

As one could recall during Aug 2010, there was a stand-off between RIM and the Indian Govt.  The Govt required facility to  intercept email and instant messages sent via BlackBerry, just as it can tap a phone. When it suspects someone of a terror crime, the Govt. wanted  to be able to read, armed with a specific written order, any encrypted email sent on a BlackBerry.
As you would know, most  email systems, including Gmail, use encryption. Enterprises don’t trust public email systems for business data, so they use their own secure, firewalled systems. Thus the mails sent through the Blackberry Enterprise system  was secure with encryption that nobody else can read that !!   The lighter flavour of RIM meant for individuals used a weaker encryption while it was stronger for business users.  Email on BB enterprise service is encrypted on the BlackBerry, using a generated key shared only between the handset and the BES server. Such mail goes out via, the telephony service provider to RIM in Canada, and back to the company’s BES, staying encrypted all the way with a key that only that enterprise knows.  That is what is published – whether there is other ways out – one really does not know !!

Going by Indian laws encryption greater than 40 bits without special permission and depositing the key with the authorities was illegal and the weakest encryption used was way above this limit.  Further the Govt. wanted access to ensure that they can access terror related messages or messages suspected to be so, just as some other Countries had access.  Now in Feb 2012, after much controversy, BlackBerry has finally set up its server in Mumbai following intense pressure from the government to provide a mechanism for lawful interception of its messenger services and Nokia has been asked to follow suit.  First Post reports that during a high-level meeting at the Union Home Ministry recently, officials of the security agencies were informed that Canada-based Research in Motion has installed the servers in Mumbai.  The servers have been inspected by a team of officers and permission for direct linkage for lawful interception was expected to be issued shortly, a presentation made at the meeting held in the office of the Home Secretary said.

The report also mentions of  DoT secretary and Security agencies reportedly stating that they the enterprise servers of companies which have communications between employees  are not of “high concern” for security or Intelligence agencies.  The Govt. has made it clear that the onus of giving access to security agencies to monitor the information on these smart phones lies with the service providers.

So now your most encrypted message could easily be read by Govt Agencies – but theoretically that would not make any difference at all to the common You & Me…………………………..

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.
21st Feb 2012.


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