India granted limited BlackBerry Messenger access

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The maker of the BlackBerry smartphone has granted India’s government manual access to its Messenger service and has promised automated access by January 1, enabling authorities to track such messages in real time, the country’s top interior ministry official said on Friday.

A woman walks past a Blackberry advertisement billboard in Mumbai August 17, 2010. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

India, one of the world’s fastest growing mobile telephone markets, also wants access to encrypted email traffic sent via Research In Motion’s enterprise servers. The BlackBerry maker says its system is designed so that only the sponsoring business or organization has the technical capability to grant such access.

India, among several countries to express concerns BlackBerry services could be used to stir political or social instability, has threatened RIM with a ban if denied access to the data.

RIM won a 60-day reprieve from India at the end of August after offering India a solution to monitor some BlackBerry data, a claim yet to be confirmed by the Canadian firm.

“We have manual access to the Messenger service. We want automated access and we are hopeful of getting it from January 1,” G.K. Pillai, India’s home (interior) secretary, told Reuters.

At the moment, security agencies are getting manual printouts of chat messages within four to five hours of placing their requirements with RIM, a home ministry source said, adding that once it gets automated access, it could track chat messages on a real-time basis.

RIM later said it was in constructive discussions with the Indian government and “remains optimistic that a positive outcome can be achieved,” but reasserted it will not alter the security architecture of its corporate offering.

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RIM averted a ban on Messenger in Saudi Arabia in August after agreeing to hand over user codes that would let Saudi authorities monitor the messaging service, a consumer product that operates outside of the secure corporate domain.

But analysts see no easy fix to the standoff over email as RIM says it has no way of intercepting the data that countries want to access. RIM has denied media reports that it provides unique wireless services or access to any one country.

Encryption is pervasive on the Internet to allow confidential transmission of personal and corporate information, but RIM is an obvious target as its BlackBerry mobile devices are ubiquitous.

Data traffic on handsets from rivals such as Apple Inc and Nokia can be more easily intercepted via the network carrier. A carrier is unable to access RIM’s enterprise data in a readable form due to the company’s end-to-end encryption managed via centralized data centers.

Talking broadly about the security concerns, RIM’s co-CEO Jim Balsillie told Reuters last week that one possible solution is for a country to establish a national registry to collect all encryption keys held by corporate entities but warned of the ill-effects that might engender.

“Blunt instruments don’t give you the answers you need,” Balsillie said. “It’s a complex world for security. And it’s a powerful world in terms of commercial advancement.”

The United Arab Emirates has threatened to suspend BlackBerry Messenger, email and web browser services from October 11 unless the government gets access to encrypted messages.

A top Abu Dhabi official said on September 26 they were “very optimistic” about reaching an agreement with RIM before the deadline.

The Obama administration is preparing legislation that could force RIM to intercept and unscramble encrypted communication, according to a report in the New York Times.

As part of its broader electronic security crackdown, the Indian government also plans to send notices to Google and Skype to set up servers in India and allow full monitoring of communication, government officials have said.

Additional reporting by Devidutta Tripathy in NEW DELHI and Alastair Sharp in Toronto; Editing by Surojit Gupta and Hans Peters