Robert Dewald is a J.D. Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School
Canadian telecommunications giant Research in Motion (RIM), which manufacturers the popular BlackBerry, has reportedly offered information and tools to assist India’s government in monitoring encrypted emails and messaging services (Reuters). India, which had threatened to shut down the BlackBerry service, is the latest country to pursue access to user communications from RIM. Recently the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also threatened to ban BlackBerry services unless RIM provides access to user data (Reuters).
The threat by foreign governments to ban BlackBerry services poses a serious danger to RIM. Competitors in North America continue to eat away at RIM’s once dominating grasp on the smart-phone market, and RIM wishes to expand in the global marketplace to further develop its customer base. The Montreal Gazette reported that during the last fiscal year, 37 per cent of RIM’s $15 billion in revenue came from outside North America, up from 23 per cent about five years ago. The demand for security concessions from countries such as India may threaten to erode RIM’s customer base as smart-phone manufacturers Nokia and Apple have already lined up to move into this market.
RIM, unlike rivals Nokia and Apple, controls its own networks, which handle encrypted messages through centres in Canada and the UK. Should BlackBerry service be restricted in India, Nokia and Apple would easily snatch up RIM’s market share. This is because Nokia and Apple rely on local telecommunications infrastructure to transmit their data allowing easy government oversight. As a result Nokia and Apple would not be subject to a similar ban, as proposed by the Indian government against RIM.
India has suffered deadly attacks, by both home grown and foreign militants, with some regularity for years. Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman in the 2008 Mumbai attack, told an Indian court that he and his comrades all had Nokia mobile phones (Huffington Post). India and other foreign governments are seeking access to encrypted Blackberry communication that could be used to coordinate national security threats.
In response, RIM has assured its customers ‘that it genuinely tries to be as cooperative as possible with governments in the spirit of supporting legal and national security requirements’ (RIM Release). RIM stated that a foreign government’s access to BlackBerry communications should not be boundless, and ‘lawful’ access be limited by four principles. First, that access be restricted to the context of national security requirements as governed by the country’s judicial oversight and rules of law. Second, government access to BlackBerry services should be no greater than regulators already impose on RIM’s competitors and other similar communications technology companies. Third, no changes will be made to the BlackBerry’s security architecture and finally that RIM will maintain a consistent global standard for lawful access requirements that does not include special deals for specific countries.
RIM and other companies will likely continue to work with foreign lawmakers in their respective countries to resolve national security concerns. However, in doing so RIM risks damaging an important aspect of its business, its reputation.
BlackBerry Messenger users have long enjoyed the secure end-to-end encryption methods used by RIM to scramble information sent from one RIM phone to another. However, as reported by the Globe and Mail, RIM may have agreed to place a BlackBerry server inside Saudi Arabia and more recent reports indicate RIM may hand over the “codes” to all local BlackBerrys to the Saudi government. Providing such information has drawn RIM into the ongoing debate of the morality and ethics of allowing foreign government access to communications that can be used to quell political dissent and imprison human rights advocates. The Toronto Star reported the comments of Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs: “These can be ruthless nasty regimes where political opposition or human rights advocates are imprisoned or worse. In colluding with them, [RIM is] assisting in that abrogation of human rights.”
Canada and the United States (U.S.) have aligned behind RIM against access to Blackberry communication, citing the need to defend consumer privacy and internet freedom (Embassy). The economic interests of Canada and U.S. are also at stake, which may have instigated the strong response by these countries against the proposed BlackBerry bans. Patrick Leblond, an expert on international economic integration and government-business relations at the University of Ottawa summarized Canada’s position “It is good business for the Canadian government to stand up for RIM, since this is one of the world’s leading technological companies, and ‘what is good for RIM is good for Canada.’”
RIM’s struggles with foreign governments to maintain its security systems and preserve its market share will likely expand to other forms of communication. Any concessions made by RIM may set a precedent for future negotiations between foreign governments and other communications companies. As reported by the Times of India, the Indian government is already considering a crackdown on Google and Skype to gain access to the information transmitted by these services. Moving forward, it will be interesting to observe the impact that RIM’s security negotiations will have on other communications based companies.