In July, around the same time Indian security officials began openly objecting to the way BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) transmitted private information, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia considered banning RIM. To some, it may have seemed that India had joined the ranks of unsavoury West Asian nations that have few qualms about violating citizen privacy. S. Ramadorai, vice-chairman of Tata Consulting Services, reflected on these pages last week: “Bans and calls for bans…disconnect India from the rest of the world.”
Except that the rest of the world, particularly the savoury parts, is also plugging into the BlackBerry question. Two months after India started wrestling with it, this question has sprung up in another democracy, the US. Those who earlier thought India was being unreasonable should think again.
US law enforcement officials want all communication services—BlackBerry, Facebook, Skype—to be “technically capable of complying when served with a wiretap order”, wrote The New York Times on Monday. Older services have these “interception capabilities”, but 21st-century technology doesn’t. To square the circle, BlackBerry will have to decrypt its encryptions.
India’s home ministry hasn’t asked for anything drastically different. It essentially wants RIM to ensure that its data comply with formats that intelligence agencies can access.
There are two differences here. First, the US already has privacy laws. India badly needs some, not just to protect its citizens, but also give security officials full legal protection for their actions. Second, where Washington has just gotten around to proposing interventions, New Delhi is pushing it through. Mint reports today that the government has begun testing solutions that allow it to scrutinize BlackBerry data. After all the brouhaha, the issue is near resolution.
Don’t get us wrong: That brouhaha was worthwhile. Whatever critics say, India’s democracy enabled a robust debate over the pros and cons here. That’s a luxury only an open society affords.
And all open societies do twist themselves into knots when trying to balance individual privacy with public security—a praiseworthy clash. But at the end of the day, a government has to carefully prioritize. When Times Square bombers in New York or Taj hotel assailants in Mumbai threaten lives while using electronic services, politically accountable governments should possess the necessary wherewithal. Without it, what else can these governments do but ban?
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