What BlackBerry shows is our technological backwardness

Published on Daily News Analysis DNA, by Anil Dharke in Mumbai, Aug 23, 2010.

Recent statistics show that there are nearly one million BlackBerries in use in India compared to over 600 million other mobile phones. The obvious question one asks is this: why is the government so agitated by BlackBerry when its numbers are so small, while no fuss was made in the mass proliferation of Nokias, Samsungs and Motorolas?

Does this mean that the BlackBerry company, RIM (Research in Motion), is the only one bothered about our right to privacy, while all the other mobile phone brands and service providers like Airtel, Loop, and Vodafone don’t give a damn?

As it happens, the right to privacy isn’t an issue that particularly bothers us as a nation. It bothers Americans a lot and they are constantly fighting legal and political battles to preserve their privacy, sometimes going to absurd lengths, at least to our unconcerned eyes. 

This is particularly so now in the age of terrorism, when time and again phone tapping, hacking into e-mails and other forms of electronic surveillance have enabled American and British authoritiesto foil many major terrorist attacks before they happened. Shouldn’t we, therefore, sacrifice a little privacy for the greater good? we ask virtuously.

As it happens, it’s not a ‘little privacy’ we are talking about. Investigative agencies can access our phone call records; not just that, they can look at all our SMSes if we are under suspicion. And how many of us are aware that each and every conversation of ours can be accessed for a certain period if we are under investigation?

The thought is scary: all of us have unguarded private conversations, either with our family members, or business associates, or friends … //

… It turns out that the stand-off has nothing to do with the citizens’ right to privacy. In fact, it has to do with the exact opposite, with the government saying that a BlackBerry enables its user to send e-mails which the government cannot decipher. A BlackBerry’s encryption of e-mails apparently gives us a privacy the government doesn’t want us to have!

Apart from the government fighting a battle for us to not have privacy, there is another aspect of the BlackBerry versus government of India battle that should worry us.

Look at the obvious question: the BlackBerry device and the services it provides haven’t just entered the market.

They have been around in the developed world for a few years now. The United States is one of the biggest markets while Canada, most European nations and the UK aren’t lagging behind either.

Even China and Russia have many BlackBerry customers. So why is it that none of these countries have made a fuss about the device’s encrypted services? This is particularly surprising when you consider that countries like the US and China are almost paranoid about security and consider that more important than almost every other issue. It cannot be that RIM shared technological details with all of them which they are stubbornly hiding from us.

This leads us to a very uncomfortable and disconcerting conclusion: our surveillance agencies are technologically backward compared to the agencies of all the other countries.

These other countries didn’t need to confront RIM and demand technological information for the simple reason that they had worked out how to decode the BlackBerry services by themselves! Our agencies were able to do that with the lower technology of other hand-held devices, particularly the mobile phone, but when it comes to the BlackBerry, they are clueless. Apparently our agencies are also unprepared for 3G services.

They will need help in dealing with that technology even though it’s been around in many countries for a few years.

The right to privacy question should bother us more than it does. At the same time the technological backwardness of our snoops should bother our home minister far more than it seems to do so now. (full long text).

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