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UN steps into Blackberry debate

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The secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union has stepped into the lawful interception debate, saying that companies are just going to have to provide governments with access somehow.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Hamadoun Toure said that governments had the right to demand access to communications, and that companies would just have to find a way in which to provide it.

This stance isn't particularly surprising: the ITU is one of the more successful bits of the United Nations - it made international direct dialling possible, among other things - but it represents the interests of the 192 governments that make up the UN, not the telecommunications industry.

The industry isn't particularly against lawful interception, especially if the government pays for it as it does in the UK, but companies like RIM and Skype have designed a security infrastructure which doesn't lend itself to interception. India is now demanding that both Skype and Google install in-country servers, as Nokia has already agreed to do, but if the encryption is end-to-end then that's not going to help.

We've been here before of course: when Pretty Good Privacy was launched governments around the world tried to ban and/or control the spread of strong encryption with very limited success. The US export bans didn't stop anyone using PGP, but they do still prevent some countries from encrypting GSM calls (resulting in enormous amounts of fraud from cloned SIMs), and it's the mass adoption of encryption that worries governments.

PGP was too much effort for most people, and it never got properly integrated with the more popular email clients, but communications over Skype and BlackBerry connections are automatically encrypted beyond the wit of all but the most determined security forces.

The ITU has no regulatory power, and with Hamadoun Toure coming up for re-election soon it's hardly surprising to hear him saying what his members want to hear. Getting companies to provide for lawful interception is more difficult, and the debate will likely be a long one. ®

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