Blackberry encryption and the right to privacy

Digital communications from mobile phones are routed through powerful computers called ‘exchange servers’. Research In Motion (RIM) based in Ontario, Canada runs the exchange servers for its business-friendly Blackberry mobile device. The company has built a reputation for secure communications, basing all its exchange servers in Canada, much to the consternation of governments around the world, who would like to listen in on these communications.

For example, if you were to send an email from your Blackberry, the email goes through as a heavily encrypted* signal to exchange servers in Canada and is then sent encrypted to the recipient. This encryption is difficult to break without the right encryption keys and hence the Blackberry smartphone has a reputation of being secure for communication.

However, this is precisely why countries like the UAE are upset with RIM, for without being able to monitor communications taking place within their territory, they fear that terrorist and other anti-national groups can communicate without check. Communication not compatible with Islamic law is a worry for the UAE, while India alleges that the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack was made possible because of secret communications using RIM’s encrypted systems.

There have been suggestions that RIM has a deal with Russian and Chinese authorities concerning the decryption of Blackberry communications. RIM and the Indian authorities have reportedly come to an understanding that will now prevent the suspension of some Blackberry services in the world’s second-largest mobile phone market. Authorities in the USA have access to RIM’s secure communications as long as they obtain proper court orders. In a rare public statement RIM has emphasised that it has co-operated with all governments to a consistent level: ‘Any claims that we provide, or have ever provided, something unique to the government of one country that we have not offered to the governments of all countries, are unfounded.’

So is it warranted for countries to want such agreements and access? Yes, as long as it is kept within legal confines, says Jenny Marsh, programme lawyer with the IBA’s Human Rights Institute: ‘The right to privacy is a qualified right.  In that sense, it means that there can be restrictions on it for the pursuit of a legitimate aim, such as national security.  However, it is essential that there are checks on governmental interference with the right to privacy, ensuring the right is only qualified when necessary and using proportionate methods.  In the case of governmental access to encrypted communications, governments would need to demonstrate a clear reason behind the interception of communication, with appropriate legal and procedural checks on their power to do so.’

* Encryption is the process of transforming plaintext information into ciphertext, making it unreadable unless one possesses an encryption key.


1 Response to “Blackberry encryption and the right to privacy”

  1. 1 Thomas S. September 24, 2010 at 12:17 am

    This is such a red-herring. Terrorists used BlackBerry so ‘we’ must monitor all BlackBerry traffic? Let’s follow that logic.

    If terrorists plot while have a drink at a cafe, then should all cafe tables be equipped with a recording device because that table *could* be used to harm the public?

    We know how data can be leaked and we know how people abuse the access they are given. Do we really think it is safe to give the government access to our communications?

    BlackBerry lets some governments access my messages, then I stop using BlackBerry and start using TrulyMail or PGP or GPG. There are plenty of ways I can keep my messages private… and many of them are free. I think I’ll take matters into my own hand and not rely on RIM to protect my privacy.

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