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Intelligence Loopholes

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Nestled among Yale University's collection of 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian clay tablets sits a hollow sphere the size of a cricket ball, containing a tiny rectangular tablet. From another era, it tells us something about the issues at stake in the recent controversy surrounding the BlackBerry.

The clay ball is the equivalent of a sealed envelop containing the shipping order. Inscribed on the tablet is a list of merchandise that has been handed over to a carrier for delivery to a trader hundreds of miles away. Only by breaking open the envelop can the recipient review the list of goods that was supposed to have been delivered. If there was any discrepancy with the quantity of merchandise delivered, then the deal soured.

Encrypted e-mail messages on BlackBerry are in a way the modern avatar of the sealed clay tablets — and of the confidentiality and trust that once enabled long-distance commerce. The nature of confidential communication has changed dramatically, as have the state's efforts to control and monitor such communications against the backdrop of security concerns.

Unlike in ancient Mesopotamia, modern states have battled hard to control flows of information. Tapping phones, cracking codes and intercepting private communications became the standard tools of espionage during the Cold War. The advent of the digital age, enabling instantaneous and encrypted communication, poses newer challenges to the state's security and surveillance capacities. In the 1990s, the US sought to maintain its ability to monitor Internet communication by requiring providers to export Web browsers with weak encryption. The effort to eavesdrop and suck in intelligence from Web stream has grown dramatically after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Nearly a decade after Canada's Research In Motion introduced the BlackBerry, states are attempting to assert control. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and India have issued an ultimatum to BlackBerry to allow governments to peek into encrypted communications. The UAE demand follows from its concern about social stability and preventing young people from organising or protesting, but it risks antagonising the very foreign businesses that it relies on for its economic future. With its half million subscribers (BlackBerry has 41 million subscribers worldwide), the UAE does not have sufficient market share to compel RIM to change its encrypted delivery model — one of its major selling points. The Saudis have additional concerns about terrorists using encrypted services to plot attacks. It seems to have reached a compromise that promises authorities access to messaging of selected users without in any way affecting the encrypted e-mail service.

India, which has suffered a series of terrorist attacks using sophisticated electronic command and communications, has threatened to shut down BlackBerry service unless the government is given access to its messaging and secured email by 31 August 2010. Again, with just 1 million users, New Delhi has limited clout to make RIM compromise its signature encrypted service. But as the 2008 attack on Mumbai shows, the Canadian company cannot ignore the seriousness of India's situation, nor the business potential a fast-growing country holds. How RIM navigates between its business concerns and the security concerns of its clients will be watched closely both in corporate board rooms and terrorists' operations centres.

While waiting for the outcome of RIM's negotiations in Delhi, one cannot but note the absence of the normally hyper-sensitive China from the debate about communications and online freedom BlackBerry has triggered. While the number of BlackBerry users in China is limited, RIM seems to have been spared scrutiny. There are two possible reasons for this: first, a large number of BlackBerrys in use in China are grey market handsets bought in Hong Kong that run web mail rather than the more expensive push mail from the encrypted BlackBerry Enterprise Server. The comparatively small number of corporate BES users seem not to concern the Chinese authorities, who are more focused on blocking subversive information on the web. Second, the fact that the terrorist threat facing India is more acute than that facing China also explains the difference in their posture towards the use of BlackBerrys in their countries.

Modern states have many more concerns apart from reading a plain text tablet after breaking open the clay envelope of Mesopotamia.

The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal Online.

boundtogether dot bw at gmail dot com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 06-09-2010)

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