India's authorities are already forcing Research In Motion to grant access to the encrypted email and instant messages of its BlackBerry users, and now the government is pressuring Google and Skype too. Doesn't the government understand technology? Or, with new successes in the Indian economy, maybe the nation is feeling the need to flex a few muscles.
On Monday, the Indian government gave RIM a two month window within which it can act to make its BlackBerry service there comply with strict anti-terrorism demands. Which basically means RIM must break or side-step its legendary high-security protocols in order to give the authorities free access to user information including email and conversations so they can spy on suspicious "persons of interest" as part of the nation's several domestic terrorist concerns. If RIM is to avoid a permanent ban on activity inside India--and access to the lovely cash that the country's 1.1 million BlackBerry owners would push its way--then it'll have to come up with a solution, probably similar in nature to the one it found in the Middle East recently.
On the back of this success, India is now pursuing Google and Skype to give it similar access to user email, IM and cellphone conversations. An unnamed government official from the home ministry is quoted by the AFP as saying that, "The message is the same for everybody" and "if a company is providing telecom services in India then all communications must be available to Indian security services." The message is stark: If Google and Skype don't comply, then they'll have to shutter their services. The Indian government is also said to be chasing after virtual private networks too--the systems that let roaming business folks keep connected to their office data without risking leaking important secret company data.
But here's the rub: The government may be flexing some political muscles on the strength of recent data that shows the Indian economy grew 8.8% in the second quarter--a new high. But closing down BlackBerry operations forcibly, and in fact even threatening to do so, basically equates to flipping the bird at India's entrepreneurs (the people responsible for some of this new-found wealth). Threats to corporate email security are equally short-sighted.
And there's one big factor that the Indian government (and that of the UAE and Saudi Arabia) has ignored: Ingenuity. If terrorists are really determined, then they'll find a way to sneak past security protocols in ways as yet undreamed of by anti-terror forces. And even if they do snoop on thousands of emails or VoIP calls, including those of perfectly innocent digital bystanders, even the most basic cryptographic methods would render "naughty" messages undetectable among the throng of other messages flying through the Web. Then there's satellite phones ... But I suppose there's one group we should think about, in terms of protecting their security: The folks putting their life on the line (pictured at right) looking after India's nuclear installations.
To keep up with this news follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.