BlackBerry services? What does India’s government want?

While India’s 800,000 BlackBerry users struggle to figure out what the government wants and what its Canadian developer Research in Motion (RIM) has featured in these devices, here are some answers:

What are BlackBerry services? Which aren’t?

Mobile push-email and messenger. RIM delivers these two services through mobile operators, such as Airtel and Reliance Communications.

All other services you use on your BlackBerry handset, such as SMS, internet access or phone calls, are directly from the mobile operator, and are not BlackBerry services.

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

What does India’s government want?

To intercept email and instant messages sent via BlackBerry, just as it can tap a phone. When it suspects someone of perpetrating a crime, it wants to be able to read, armed with a specific written order, any encrypted email sent on BlackBerry.

The government can order interception of messages, under Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act,1885, only with a written order, granted only when required to prevent a major offense involving national security or terrorism.

Economic offenses were once covered, but withdrawn in 1999 by a Supreme Court order.

Why is BlackBerry mail encrypted?

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.

Now, when they need to use a mobile push-email system, they want to be certain that no third party can read the mail, not even the email provider.

That is BlackBerry’s USP: Mail so secure that RIM itself cannot read it.

What’s BIS and does the government have access to it?

BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) is the lighter flavour of RIM’s two email services. Meant for individuals, it uses weaker encryption. BIS users buy convenience more than ironclad security.

Airtel or Vodafone “pipes” the encrypted mail from your handset to RIM, which then decrypts it and sends it out, to the recipient.

So RIM “can” let investigative agencies read such mail, and India now has an agreement for BIS access

Can RIM really not “access” BES?

BES is RIM’s flagship product, designed to be so secure that not even RIM can read mail on it. It requires BES server software in the user company’s network.

Email is encrypted on the BlackBerry, using a generated key shared only between the handset and the BES server.

Such mail goes out via, say, Airtel, to RIM in Canada, and back to the company’s BES, staying encrypted all the way with a key that only that enterprise knows. Then it’s decrypted, within the enterprise, and moved to the email server.

If the mail is to someone outside the company, it is sent out – decrypted – by the company’s mailserver.

RIM itself does not have the key to “crack open” BES encrypted mail. That is the published design. Does RIM have a secret backdoor? One really does not know.


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