RIM Meets Indian Gov’t in the Middle on User Surveillance

RIM has agreed to let Indian officials conduct lawful surveillance of consumers in that country using its BlackBerry services, according to a Wall Street Journal.

The decision is yet another step in RIM’s long, drawn-out battle with New Delhi over the latter’s demands to monitor users of BlackBerry services in India.

India has repeatedly threatened to shut down BlackBerry services because of RIM’s refusal to capitulate to its demands, but both parties now appear to have reached some sort of compromise.

“RIM continues to work very well with the government of India, and we have welcomed the positive new draft of the India Telecommunications Policy recently released by Minister Sibal,” RIM spokesperson Marisa Conway told TechNewsWorld. Conway declined to confirm the details of the Journal report.

Kapil Sibal is India’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology.

What’s noteworthy about RIM’s move is that it seems to have sidestepped India’s previous demands to monitor enterprise BlackBerry communications.

However, RIM’s been under pressure from governments in the Middle East and China, which also want to monitor their citizen’s BlackBerry communications.

What RIM Agreed To

RIM reportedly set up a small facility in the Indian city of Mumbai, a major high-tech hub in India, to handle surveillance requests from the Indian government.

The government will reportedly submit the name of a suspect whose communications it wants to monitor, and RIM will hand over that person’s decoded messages, provided it’s satisfied that the request has legal authorization.

The Mumbai facility will only handle lawful requests for monitoring consumer services.

It’s believed RIM will provide New Delhi access to BlackBerry Messenger and BlackBerry Internet Service emails.

Setting up the Mumbai facility has reportedly only partly assuaged the Indian government, which would prefer to decode the messages itself.

India has been demanding the right to monitor the BlackBerry communications of both individuals and enterprises in India.

India’s pretext for demanding the right to monitor BlackBerry communications was that it feared terrorists would use encrypted messages to coordinate and stage attacks such as the chain of bombings and shootings in Mumbai in 2008 which claimed 166 victims.

The attackers reportedly used cellphones to stay in touch.

The Pressure’s On

RIM is under pressure from the Indian government and the governments of China and several Middle Eastern countries to allow them to monitor their citizens’ BlackBerry communications.

In India, RIM has coordinated its strategy with other companies, including Twitter, Nokia, Skype and Google, thus presenting a broader front to New Delhi.

Nokia reportedly set up servers in India in March, and is testing systems that would give New Delhi access to consumer messages.

It’s likely that other communications companies in India have also reached some sort of agreement with the country’s intelligence authorities over monitoring their customers’ communications.

“We believe the government of India is now applying its security policy in a consistent manner, which means that RIM should not be singled out any more than any other provider,” RIM’s Conway stated.

Weakening Position

However, “once a company has capitulated to one demanding government, holding out from others becomes increasingly difficult,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

RIM has also come under pressure in other areas. Sales of its PlayBook tablet have been poor, and the company’s second quarter results were disappointing.

On Friday, reports surfaced that Robert Crow, RIM’s vice president for industry, government and university relations, and senior vice president Jim Tobin had left the company surfaced.

“Certainly [RIM’s] position has weakened over the past 12 to 18 months,” King remarked.

Given that, and the strong demand for BlackBerries in India, “the company may have decided that whatever it has to gain from sticking to its privacy guns is far less than what it stands to lose,” King added.

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