Attacks to put BlackBerry services under scanner; legal issues raised

Written by Anandita Singh Mankotia | New Delhi | Updated: Nov 29 2008, 05:50am hrs
The Mumbai terror attacks are likely to once again put e-mail services of BlackBerry under the governments scanner. The authorities inability to intercept the satellite communication mode, used by the terrorists who attacked Mumbai, is being widely felt by the industry and sections within the government as one of the impediments in the current crisis.

In the past, concerns have been raised by the home ministry about the lack of legal interception being available for the BlackBerry services. In every likelihood the home ministry is going to press on the issue once again.

It was the absence of satellite interception facility in the country due to which the intelligence agencies were unable to foil the terror plots. Similarly BlackBerry services, which have over 1 million subscribers in the country, cannot be lawfully intercepted. Communication on a BlackBerry device can be intercepted on a mobile network since the communication passes through a mobile network in a reformatted manner. However, in cases where such communication is between BlackBerry devices, interception is not possible. BlackBerry services provide access to email through push technology on mobile phones and the service is currently being offered by Bhart Airtel, Vodafone-Essar, BPL, Reliance Communications and Tata Teleservices Ltd (TTSL). A Canadian firm Research in Motion (RIM) is the technology provider for the BlackBerry services globally.

The issue was first brought to limelight early this year when Tatas were denied permission as the ministry of home affairs (MHA) said that communication between BlackBerry devices couldnt be intercepted. However, the Canadian firm RIM had appeared reluctant in sharing its technological capabilities and wanted more time to find an alternative route rather than setting up servers in the country. The Canadian firm, however, finally expressed its inability to either provide a solution to Indian security agencies to decode content or shift servers to the sub-continent nation to enable them monitor e-mails and other data. The matter was finally resolved when the department of telecommunications secretary, Siddharth Behura said that the government does not accord permission or deny the same to operators for launching the services.

Behuras statement then was seen as a complete turnaround from the earlier position. There is no threat from BlackBerry services. There is no permission needed for starting value added services. We have not given permission to anybody, we have not disallowed anybody, Behura had then said. Interestingly, the DoT had earlier, on the advice of the home ministry pulled up companies like Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Essar, and Reliance Communications for starting the services without the governments prior approval. This was seen as a turnaround because not only did the DoT write letters to TTSL for not starting the services without the provision for legal interception, it also held a series of meetings with telecom companies and the Canadian firm, RIM, to provide a solution.

On being denied permission, TTSL had written to DoT that since other operators were providing the services without fulfilling the requirements it should also be allowed to do so. DoT had sought to restrain it stating that non-compliance of instructions by any other operator cannot be a valid ground for according permission. Later, TTSL had written to DoT that the delay was taking a toll on its business plans so it is going ahead with the services. Whatever solution is arrived at and applied to other operators, would be observed by it also.

Finally, TTSL was able to launch its BlackBerry services six months after it ran into trouble with MHA. With the latest strike by terrorist on the countrys financial capital, it remains to be seen whether the whole issue is examine again as the National Security Adviser is still looking into the issue.