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India: We DO have the BlackBerry encryption keys

RIM: Er, I think you'll find you don't

Application security programs and practises

Indian government officials have apparently claimed that Research in Motion has handed over the skeleton keys used to encrypt BlackBerry communications – once again ignoring the fact that such keys don't exist.

The Times of India has reported that RIM "agreed to hand over its encryption keys" to the Asian nation, and allowed lawful intercept of all email, messaging and other communications. The paper claims to have viewed internal government documents confirming this. According to the Times:

[RIM] has now handed over this infrastructure to Indian agencies, internal government documents reviewed by ET reveal.

Canada-based RIM has, as usual, not only denied handing over any keys but also reiterated that it couldn't hand over keys that it doesn't actually have.

BlackBerry users come in two varieties: corporate users connected to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), and consumers who connect to a RIM-managed BES. Corporate users create their encryption keys when setting up their BES, and communication between the handset and the BES is secured against all but the best-funded of governments. Consumers are issued a key by RIM, and connect to their geographically nearest – and RIM-managed – BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES).

When BlackBerry Messenger (BBM - an instant-messaging service unique to RIM) was implicated in the 2011 riots, the UK police were able to wander along to the UK-based BES server and peruse all the messages and emails exchanged by rioters without breaking any encryption. The Data Protection Act provided all the power they need, with RIPA providing police with similar access to companies running their own BES – though in that case, the biz owners themselves hold the keys, hence the problem with the Indian government's claims.

The problem for India was that RIM had no local BES, so consumers were connected to one in Canada and subject to Canadian law. What seems likely, though RIM won’t confirm it, is that RIM now has a BES server located within India where the local authorities can browse communications just as easily as their UK counterparts.

But that's no help against companies, or groups, who run their own BES (the basic version of which is free). Where a local BES is used, RIM never has access to the encryption keys, and RIM has resolutely resisted informal requests to create a back-door in their software – rightly believing that if such a move became public (as it inevitably would) it would destroy the only area (security) within which RIM still has credibility.

The Times of India claims a government spokesman told them that RIM had provided such a back door, but it's not the first time we've heard a claim of this type. Back in 2010, the Indian government claimed RIM was providing access to communications, at least twice, then it made roughly the same claim in October 2011, and again in February this year, so these new claims have to be taken in that context.

The Indian government is trying to reassure its population (and voters) that no foreign company will prevent it from intercepting communications, but it risks its own credibility by repeatedly claiming to have access to encryption keys which simply don't exist. ®

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