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BlackBerry’s dilemma: to raise or to lower its encryption levels

BlackBerry’s dilemma: to raise or to lower its encryption levels
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First Published: Fri, Jun 13 2008. 12 17 AM IST

Blackberry Curve handsets. Photograph b y Norm Betts/ Bloomberg
Blackberry Curve handsets. Photograph b y Norm Betts/ Bloomberg
Updated: Fri, Jun 13 2008. 12 17 AM IST
Milan: The BlackBerry has become the mobile email tool of choice for thousands of companies in North America, Europe and Asia. Yet growth has been stunted in some countries as governments demand a way around perceived security concerns.
Blackberry Curve handsets. Photograph b y Norm Betts/ Bloomberg
For some governments, the BlackBerry's encryption system is too tough to crack, making it almost impossible for outsiders to gain access to email messages sent from the handsets. That worries India, for instance, which said last month that it feared terrorists might use BlackBerrys to communicate.
Though the devices are available in India, the government wants Research In Motion Ltd (RIM), the manufacturer, to lower the level of encryption so that email messages can be monitored.
In other cases, the concern has been that the device is not secure enough. The French government last year recommended that senior civil servants stop using their BlackBerrys for fear that the email messages, which pass through servers in North America, could be read by the US government.
The BlackBerry's entry into Russia has also been delayed several times because of security concerns.
Research In Motion has met with governments that have objected to its system, prompting speculation that the company, which is based in Canada, has agreed to modify the security system in some cases to gain access to new markets.
RIM declined to comment on its security measures; however, after a meeting with the Indian government last month, the company wrote a letter to customers in that country in an effort to reassure them, adding that its security was the same everywhere.
“RIM is committed to continue serving security-conscious businesses in the Indian market with highly secure and innovative products that satisfy the needs of both business and government,” it said in the letter. “RIM respects the needs of governments to balance regulatory requirements alongside the corporate security and individual privacy needs of its citizens and RIM will not disclose confidential discussions that take place with any government."
So far, RIM has managed to satisfy most governments and continue growing. Four years ago in the US, members of Congress expressed concern that their email messages could be accessed illegally because they were passing through a server in Canada. But RIM managed to persuade them that its security was effective. Analysts said it should succeed in eventually satisfying India, too.
“RIM will try to find a way to appease the Indian government's concerns without compromising their security system that has worked around the world,” said Kevin Burden, the director of mobile devices at ABI Research.
The company shipped 4.4 million devices in the quarter that ended on March 1 and now has more than 14 million BlackBerry subscribers around the world.
RIM continues to make the BlackBerry service available in more countries. In the last month, it has added the United Arab Emirates and Serbia, though some bigger and more lucrative markets have remained hard to pry open, including India.
“RIM has often been singled out because it has such an important slice of the market,” Burden said. “The security concerns do not involve just RIM. A Windows Mobile device running good technology would have the same or similar security as a BlackBerry. The only difference is that RIM is bigger and more successful.”
RIM says that neither it nor any mobile phone company can access the information sent by business customers with BlackBerrys.
While RIM continues to battle in India, it has managed a partial success in South Korea, which last month said business clients could begin using BlackBerrys.
That decision came just in time for a ministerial meeting of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Seoul next week, dedicated to the future of the Internet economy. It will be attended by more than 40 representatives from around the world, as well as Viviane Reding, the European Union's commissioner for telecommunications, and RIM's co-chief executive Jim Balsillie.
RIM declined to say whether there was a connection between South Korea's partial opening to the BlackBerry and Balsillie's attendance.
©2008/The NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Fri, Jun 13 2008. 12 17 AM IST
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