CANADA-BASED Research in Motion, creator of the BlackBerry, is between a rock and a hard place. With the U.S. market for its keypad-equipped smart phones dwindling after the rise of the iPhone, RIM's growth lies overseas. But as more people in other countries acquire its phones, demands of foreign governments for access to data to deal with security threats, and probably political threats as well, by monitoring the phones have also increased.
RIM's position has reflected the need to straddle these divergent constituencies. The challenge is formidable in the face of a third factor -- the apparent lack of technological understanding that drives some governments to demand a "back-door key" to encrypted files, a technology that RIM itself does not possess, or to insist that RIM must locate servers inside their countries to make monitoring easier, a response that would have no effect on the ease of access to RIM's global system.
The government of India recently demanded that RIM provide access to encrypted data or face the shutdown of its services. RIM faced similar deadlines before -- from Saudi Arabia and from the United Arab Emirates, which plans to disable parts of BlackBerry service Oct. 11. Part of the desire for such scrutiny is the result of understandable government concerns about security in the face of international terrorism. But as more people acquire mobile phones and perform an increasing range of tasks, conceding too easily to the surveillance demands of such regimes is unfair to BlackBerry's customers.
In India, RIM has provided some user message data and proposals for automated technology to the government so that India has lawful access to material that it can test over the next 60 days. RIM has also proposed an industry-wide forum to examine ways of "supporting the lawful access needs of law enforcement agencies while preserving the legitimate information security needs of corporations."
RIM is to be commended for its efforts to raise awareness and inform governments and consumers about the limits of technology. India, the world's largest democracy, may have legitimate safety requests. But a one-size-fits-all policy in terms of sharing users' messages and data with surveillance agencies makes little sense. The more RIM yields, the more countries will demand access to data, undermining the very security that has made the BlackBerry the communications device of choice for so many. And not just RIM is affected; this month, India began demanding that other companies such as Google and Skype also provide access to data and install local servers in the country.
We hope the forum and the steps RIM has already taken in India will allay official concerns. But RIM must stand its ground; giving in might cause it to lose customers while encouraging repressive regimes to monitor and intimidate peaceful dissenters.