Secure communicationConflict between governments' need to know and secure comms intensifies

Published 16 August 2010

The tensions between the desire of government authorities to use every tool available to them to detect and prevent crime — and acts of terrorism, on the one hand, and technologies which offer privacy to businesses and individuals, on the other hand, is not new; the skirmishes between BlackBerry — and, soon, Google and Skype — and the governments of India, Saudi Arabia, and UAE are but the latest round in this decades-old conflict

The ongoing conflicts between the maker of Blackberry smart phones and India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are but the latest rounds in a cat-and-mouse game: in one corner are governmental authorities; in the other corner are technologies racing beyond govenments’ grasp.

What is going on is this elegant dance we go through when countries think their sovereignty is being threatened by new technology,” Mark Rasch, who headed the computer crimes division at the US Department of Justice for nine years., told AFP. “Governments are very ready to deploy technology that invades privacy, but privacy enhancing technologies make them nervous.”

Security experts put the row over Blackberry encryption capabilities in the context of decades of tensions and conflicts around the security implications of new Internet and communications technologies — tensions which today also touches services like Google’s Talk messaging system and the telephone and video services provided by Skype.

AFP’s Glenn Chapman notes that in the most high profile case this month, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) said Friday it was “optimistic” it could avert a threatened shutdown by India of the core features of the popular smartphone over security worries.

A delegation from the Canadian firm met India’s Home Secretary G.K. Pillai to discuss the government’s warning it would ban BlackBerry’s corporate e-mail and messaging unless it gave security agencies access to the encrypted services.

The Indian ultimatum came after Saudi Arabia postponed imposing a BlackBerry ban as the conservative Muslim country reported progress in solving its own security concerns. The UAE, however, has said it will ban BlackBerry messenger, e-mail, and Web browsing services from 11 October for security reasons.

There are lots of governments today, including the United States, with intelligence operations that can be impeded by technologies utilizing some kind of encryption,” said John Bumgarner, chief technology officer at the nonprofit US Cyber Consequences Unit. “The argument is that technology such as BlackBerry, Google Talk, or Skype is impacting the ability to identify terrorist operations in their borders” (see “NSA may offer “billions” for a solution allowing eavesdropping on Skype” 13 February 2009 HSNW; and “Intelligence, law enforcement face another hurdle: encrypted VoIP,” 26 February 2009 HSNW).

Each of those services scrambles data with tough-to-crack codes, according to Bumgarner, whose group does threat research for U.S. agencies. There is an array of encryption tools that people can use for Internet telephone calls or e-mail, including “Mujahedeen Secrets”