There is a link between the government’s threat to ban some BlackBerry services and a report in The Lancet about a superbug picked up in India by medical tourists: Despite the very real issues involved in the cases, the possibility of both being motivated cannot be completely ruled out.
Let’s first look at the issues involved in the two cases that made the headlines this week.
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The government is worried that terrorists could use the BlackBerry corporate email service and the BlackBerry messenger service to communicate. Since it typically monitors traffic at the telco (or operator) level, where the first is encrypted and the second is scrambled, it wants BlackBerry to provide it with the tools to decrypt and unscramble the messages. The government’s desire to do this is entirely understandable and it is well within its rights to want to do so. A company operating in a country has to respect and address the concerns of the government of that country, especially if they are legitimate. The Indian government’s are: We live in a dangerous part of the world. What’s more, unlike China and Saudi Arabia, the two other countries where BlackBerry’s manufacturer Research In Motion Ltd (RIM) has had problems, India boasts of a duly elected democratic government.
In the second case, The Lancet is the most respected medical journal in the world and its articles are usually peer-reviewed. This specific study was sponsored by the European Union, Wyeth, and the Wellcome Trust, which, while being cause for some small degree of alarm, doesn’t really take away much from the study. And India does have a lot of bugs, as we all know very well, and some Indian hospitals, even the ones where you end up spending a lot of money, do not pay as much attention to hygiene as they should.
Yet there is more to both issues than meets the eye.
As Prasanto K. Roy, the chief editor of CyberMedia’s ICT Group, pointed out in a column in news agency IANS earlier this week, India might well be misguided in targeting BlackBerry. Terrorists, Roy writes, will likely use email (especially the draft option on Google and Yahoo where they and their handlers can save mails, on the same account, without actually ever sending them—all the other person has to do is log in and see the draft); or even phones on a SIM that can then be disposed of. And China and Saudi Arabia aren’t exactly great examples to follow, he adds.
So, what lies behind the home ministry’s enthusiasm to pull the plug on BlackBerry services?
Since the question hasn’t been asked loudly enough, this writer will ask it here: Are BlackBerry’s competitors lobbying against it? After all, RIM has succeeded in spreading the reach of its phones with even schoolchildren beginning to use BlackBerrys.
There’s a similar question to be asked about the superbug too, but maybe because it is Indian hospital chains that are being indirectly attacked, Indian media and some of the country’s healthcare entrepreneurs have already asked it: Is the superbug study meant to scare away medical tourists who travel to India in search of cheap, quick and high-quality surgeries? Indeed, many of the tourists are those from the UK who travel to India so as to avoid the queue at NHS (National Health Service) for all but the most critical surgeries. Last year, by some estimates, almost 800,000 medical tourists travelled to India. This writer doesn’t know how many of them are from the UK, but clearly 800,000 is the kind of number that will make many people in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry very, very nervous.
Extensive studies that will no doubt be undertaken now, if they aren’t already under way, will establish the truth behind the superbug study. And RIM and the government may well reach some sort of understanding, lthough it is highly unlikely that we will ever find out if a competitor was behind the whole thing. On Friday, a day after the government set 31 August as a deadline for BlackBerry to share its encryption and unscrambling keys, executives from RIM met officials in the home ministry again, seeking more time.
PS: Could India actually pull the plug on BlackBerry? Well, this is a country that seriously considered (and even tried) jamming satellite television signals in the early 1990s.
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