Future Tense

India’s Spies Want Data on Every BlackBerry Customer Worldwide

Audience members are tinted by stage lights while using their smartphones during Research in Motion's (RIM) launch of their Blackberry 10 devices in New York January, 2013.
Audience members are tinted by stage lights while using their smartphones during Research in Motion’s (RIM) launch of their Blackberry 10 devices in New York January, 2013. Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

There are about 79 million BlackBerry subscribers worldwide—and India’s government wants to hand its spy agency data on every one of them.

In late 2012, back when it was still officially known as Research in Motion, the company behind BlackBerry handsets worked with the Indian government to enable surveillance of Blackberry Messenger and Blackberry Internet Service emails. But now India’s authorities are complaining that they can only spy on communications sent between the estimated 1 million BlackBerry users in India—and they want a list of all BlackBerry handsets across the globe.

Each BlackBerry handset is allocated a unique PIN that can be used to send messages for free to other BlackBerry users. The service has caused security concerns because these messages, sent encrypted over special servers, can be difficult to intercept and therefore used by criminals to evade surveillance. However, though India’s government says its spooks have now been provided with a list of all Indian BlackBerry users’ PIN codes—meaning monitoring communications of these users is now feasible—the authorities don’t have PIN codes of foreign users. That makes it difficult for them to identify and eavesdrop on messages sent between India and people in other countries. And that’s what they want to change.

As India’s Economic Times reported yesterday, “a government panel has recommended that BlackBerry be asked to provide access to ‘PIN’ details of all its handsets across the globe to enable intelligence agencies in the country to track messages exchanged between Indian subscribers and those living abroad.” BlackBerry has not yet provided these data due to “privacy and legal provisions,” but the company has previously ceded to India’s surveillance demands after being threatened with getting shut off from the country.

In response to questions I sent BlackBerry last night, spokeswoman Krista Seggewiss said the company had “worked closely with our partners to ensure ongoing lawful access compliance.” Seggewiss dismissed what she said were “misleading reports by certain publications” but would not comment on what exactly was misleading or explain whether BlackBerry was previously aware of the Indian government seeking global users’ PIN codes. An Indian government document I have seen, signed and dated as recently as last month, confirms authorities want to negotiate with BlackBerry to obtain PIN and other identifying data “for all the BlackBerry handsets” including those from “other countries.” The Indian government’s department of telecommunication was not reachable for comment at the time of publication.

India isn’t alone in pursuing more snooping powers, of course. Other similar efforts are well underway across the world. Late last year, Pakistan reportedly installed mass surveillance gear to help “curb blasphemous and obscene websites” and monitor communications. The United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom are all pursing efforts to upgrade their surveillance capabilities. Meanwhile, Canada has put an attempt to bring in a new Internet spy law on ice after what one newspaper described as a “public fire storm.”

What sets the push for increased surveillance in India apart from other countries, though, is how publicly it has played out. In the United States or Europe, any snooping-related wrangling between telecom companies and governments usually takes place behind closed doors in secretive meetings. But the Indian authorities seem happy to negotiate publicly with communications companies—often publishing statements about the current status of their spying capabilities. The country’s communications minister last year openly claimed, for instance, that the government had negotiated a means to allow security agencies to intercept services including Blackberry Messenger, Skype, Yahoo, and Gmail—though acknowledged the agencies were having difficulty decrypting some of the data.