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RIM tries to placate everyone

Impossible task sure to irritate all parties

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Updated RIM, operator of the BlackBerry service, has been explaining that customers' security and government contracts are equally important, and that it really, really, doesn't have any keys to hand over.

The company has been very restrained on the governmental demands and statements put out recently, refusing to comment on just about everything except to deny the existence of a "master key". But now RIM has laid out the principles that apparently guide its decision making process.

Governments around the world have been increasingly vocal in demanding the ability to lawfully intercept BlackBerry communications. RIM is facing accusations of caving too easily to Saudi Arabia by agreeing to host servers within the country, and now India is demanding access to cryptographic keys that just don't exist.

RIM would like to make it clear that it "genuinely tries to be as cooperative as possible with governments in the spirit of supporting legal and national security requirements". RIM will not secure communications against the wishes of the lawful government.

As long as everyone else is subject to the same rules, that is. RIM's second point is about playing fair, so everyone must be subject to the same rules.

RIM's fourth point is that it doesn't make concessions for specific countries, which is sort of true. If RIM has a server in the UK (which it does) then that is subject to UK law, but if RIM doesn't have a server in Saudi Arabia then it is not subject to Saudi law. That's a matter of geography rather than any concessions made by RIM.

But it's the third point - the "master key" demand - that prompted RIM's public declaration. As the company explains with increasing desperation: "RIM truly has no ability to provide its customers’ encryption keys."

As we've already pointed out, for those running their own BlackBerry Enterprise Server that's almost certainly true. The encrypted messages may be routed through a RIM server, but only in encrypted form with the handset performing the decryption locally. This is irrelevant to lawful interception as the local government can just seize the server if necessary, but it does obstruct the kind of fishing expedition that concerns most people.

To use an example: if the UK police want a copy of your mobile phone communications (though a BlackBerry or otherwise) then they approach your network operator and make the request. They must make an explicit request for specific information: calls between specific times, messages exchanged with a specific number, and so forth, and it must all be with reference to a specific case. What the UK police can't do is monitor huge quantities of mobile phone communication to see if anything interesting turns up, not least because the network operators charge them for every request.

A perfect solution would be for every BlackBerry user to start using a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (by a remarkable coincidence the Express version got updated yesterday, and it's free), as that would put the server in the same country as the user. But as long as there are loads of BlackBerry users aggregating their personal email accounts on out-of-country servers security is going to be a problem, and politicians will continue on asking RIM for copies of non-existent keys. ®

Update: The Calcutta News reports that RIM is seeking further meetings with the Indian government, though is having trouble getting an appointment. Negotiations are obviously ongoing, and we'll keep you updated.

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