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India threatens to shut down BlackBerry service

It becomes the latest country to say it will cut off BlackBerry service if RIM, which makes the phones, does not comply with its security demands.

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion has until August 31 to satisfy India's security concerns or get booted out of the country.

India's government is the latest in a long list of national governments that have recently threatened to shut down BlackBerry services over security issues. The United Arab Emirates has said it will halt Blackberry Messenger, e-mail, and Web browsing starting October 11. Indonesia and Saudi Arabia also threatened to block BlackBerry Messenger service. Saudi Arabia reached a deal with RIM over the weekend, and a ban that was to go into effect starting Monday was lifted.

RIM BlackBerry
Research In Motion

Meanwhile, countries in Europe, such as Germany, are also putting pressure on RIM to loosen its security enough so that communications can be monitored. The German government has urged staffers not to use the BlackBerry, and several ministries have banned them, Reuters reported. And last week, the European Commission rejected the BlackBerry as a handset for its employees, opting instead for Apple's iPhone and HTC smartphones.

India's decision followed a meeting that Home Secretary G.K. Pillai had with officials from India's Department of Telecommunications as well as other federal security agencies, according to Reuters.

"Our message to RIM and service providers is that if they don't come up with a technical solution by Aug. 31, then the home ministry will take a view and will shut down BlackBerry Messenger and business enterprises services," a spokesman for the ministry said in a statement.

Governments say the BlackBerry's tight security is a concern as they try to combat terrorist attacks and other illegal activities. India, for instance, is trying to keep a lid on fighting by insurgents in Kashmir as well as potential threats from Pakistani militants.

Of RIM's 46 million users worldwide, about 1.1 million are in India. India is among the fastest-growing markets for the BlackBerry. This is an important factor given that the North American market, RIM's stronghold, is becoming saturated. RIM and other phone makers need to look to developing countries, such as India and nations in the Middle East, for growth.

If RIM is unable to satisfy India's security demands, the services that would be shut down are the BlackBerry e-mail service and instant messaging.

India's demands come just days after RIM settled a similar dispute with Saudi Arabia. Officials there threatened to cut off BlackBerry Messenger services starting last Friday. According to reports, RIM agreed to put a server in Saudi Arabia, and the service has continued to operate in that country.

India is likely looking for the same type of result, since shutting down service would disrupt communications for business users as well as for foreign travelers.

"RIM has assured us they will come with some solution. It remains to be seen whether they address our security concerns," Reuters quoted an unnamed senior internal security official as saying Thursday.

Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM offers the most secure mobile messaging and e-mail platform on the market. Not only does RIM encrypt communications on the device, but it also runs its own server network that encrypts the traffic as well. Rivals such as Nokia, Apple, or Google's Android platform, do not offer the same tight security. RIM hosts its servers at home in Canada as well as in other countries, including the U.K.

A large part of RIM's appeal to corporate and government customers of its services is the tight security. Many critics have warned that if RIM is indeed compromising security to satisfy government demands, then it risks losing its strongest competitive advantage.

RIM has said its BlackBerry Enterprise service allows customers to create their own security keys, which RIM does not have access to. The company also claims there are no backdoor tricks to crack the encryption.

The company has been tight-lipped about the negotiations with each country, but it released a statement on Thursday clarifying its position and reassuring BlackBerry users that it is not compromising security.

RIM said in its statement that it cannot disclose confidential discussions with governments, but the company said that it is cooperating with officials "in the spirit of supporting legal and national security requirements, while also preserving the lawful needs of citizens and corporations."

The company said access that it grants governments would be limited by four main principles:

  1. The carriers' capabilities be limited to the strict context of lawful access and national security requirements as governed by the country's judicial oversight and rules of law.
  2. The carriers' capabilities must be technology and vendor neutral, allowing no greater access to BlackBerry consumer services than the carriers and regulators already impose on RIM's competitors and other similar communications technology companies.
  3. No changes to the security architecture for BlackBerry Enterprise Server customer since, contrary to any rumors, the security architecture is the same around the world and RIM truly has no ability to provide its customers' encryption keys. Also driving RIM's position is the fact that strong encryption is a fundamental commercial requirement for any country to attract and maintain international business anyway and similarly strong encryption is currently used pervasively in traditional VPNs on both wired and wireless networks in order to protect corporate and government communications.
  4. RIM maintains a consistent global standard for lawful access requirements that does not include special deals for specific countries.

Updated 3:44 p.m. PDT: This story was updated with RIM's official statement released on Thursday.