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The BlackBerry spies

The BlackBerry spies
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First Published: Fri, Aug 06 2010. 12 28 PM IST
Updated: Fri, Aug 06 2010. 12 28 PM IST
Sometime in the near future.
Deputy director Kumar of the National BlackBerry Monitoring Agency of India (NBMAI) briskly walks into his shiny new office. The floor creaks under the weight of his shoes. The maple wood must be replaced, Kumar thinks.
The offices of NBMAI are located in the netball stadium custom-built for the Commonwealth Games. After the Games, the facility was handed over to a developer for maintenance. Who converted it into a commercial centre. Now NBMAI shared a floor with a KFC and the top floor of a Big Bazaar. Thankfully, the netball field itself remained untouched, and netballers from all over India was allowed to use the facility, whenever they wanted, between 6am and 8am on all Sundays.
Kumar marches through a vast warren of cubicles. Employees peer at computer monitors.
Every piece of data exchanged between two BlackBerrys in the country is routed through NBMAI’s servers. As per government regulations, NBMAI employees are allowed to randomly pick any voice call, text message, instant message, email or MMS from this flood of communication.
The first few weeks of NBMAI were turbulent. Kumar and his superiors slowly realized that depending purely on human agents to randomly pick messages would lead to chaos.
For instance, on one evening, in the early days of the agency, Kumar discovered that 23 of the 34 monitoring experts were all looking for threats to state security, especially photos, on Deepika Padukone’s BlackBerry.
A few weeks after that the home minister suddenly visited NBMAI’s office for a surprise check. However, an employee had already read an email Kumar sent to the home secretary, from his BlackBerry, about the trip.
When the ministry team arrived they saw a banner: “NBMAI welcome the home minister. We wish you a successful surprise inspection visit.”
In yet another case of blatant misuse, a Lok Sabha member convinced one of NBMAI’s employees to tap into an arch-rival’s Berry. A debate was afoot, and the MP asked this spy among spies to rush any dodgy messages to Parliament.
Damage, however, was averted at the last minute. The MP stood up and said: “Speaker sir, I wish to bring to your notice this message sent by the honourable member last week. In it the member says, and I quote: ‘Lolz u cnt hz 3G yt. Eeeheehee reg: MNP. C u at Nth Blck @ 8.’ My question to the House is this: What does this mean for the country? In fact, what does this mean in general? Anyone?”
Since then Kumar had made several changes. First of all, a computer program was installed that could automatically check messages and flag problematic ones. Second, Kumar made it illegal to target checks on any individuals. Yet, NBMAI still faced crises on a daily basis.
Kumar settles into his office chair and switches on his computer. Instantly he notices a series of emails. One is an emergency message. The letters glow red. He summons his CTO.
“Sir,” the CTO gasps, “our terror-attack module flagged over 7,000 terror messages last night. We need to do something about this.”
“My God! 7,000 messages! We must alert Home immediately!”
“But it was a misunderstanding...”
“What do you mean?”
“Sir, there was a national conference of management consultants in Mumbai last night. It appears that their BlackBerry messages are throwing up many false positives.”
“I don’t understand...”
“First of all, in the morning there were several messages that mentioned airports, drops, flights, transfers and even one that said someone was going to ‘crash on the plane’. Our algorithm went mad.”
“Assuming a plane attack no doubt. We must fix this. Then?”
“During the day they had presentations. So we detected messages about ‘blowing up charts’, ‘exploding the process flow’, ‘boiling the ocean’, ‘deep dive’, ‘drill down’, ‘critical path’, ‘go live’ and more than one ‘helicopter view’. The system decided that some form of airborne attack was imminent at Marine Drive.”
“Understandably so. And then?”
“During the evening we got bombarded with ‘mission critical’, ‘chain reaction’, ‘collaborate’ and ‘cross platform’.”
“Oho. This must have set off our rail terror alert logic.”
“Correct. But things got completely out of hand in the evening. When the conference got over.”
“Oh God...”
“Yes...”
“The military site attack sensor...”
“Correct. We fended off all the ‘ice breaker’, ‘break out’ and ‘north bound’ alerts. But when three thousand ‘touch base’ messages flooded the system, it immediately alerted Siachen.”
Kumar shakes his head in frustration. He stands up in order to say something. When suddenly the wooden floor, built by the lowest bidder, gives way, and he disappears into the ground.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Aug 06 2010. 12 28 PM IST