Does the Government want to enter our homes?

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Aug 13, 2010 09:00 AM |
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When rogue politicians and bureaucrats are granted unrestricted access to information then the very future of democracy and free media will be in jeopardy. In an article published in the Pune Mirror on 10 August, 2010, Sunil Abraham examines this in light of the BlackBerry-to-BlackBerry messenger service that the Government of India plans to block if its makers do not allow the monitoring of messages. He says that civil society should rather resist and insist on suitable checks and balances like governmental transparency and a fair judicial oversight instead of allowing the government to intrude into the privacy and civil liberties of its citizens.

What? Me worry about the blackberry imbroglio?
If Pierre Trudeau were alive today, he would feel similarly about the Canadian innovation that is making news these days. But, given the Indian media's objective take on the ongoing BlackBerry tussle, one would assume that the media is unaffected.

Many internet observers say that  the very future of democracy and free media is at stake. If rogue politicians and bureaucrats are able to eavesdrop on the communications of media houses, wouldn't that sound the death knell for sting operations, anonymous informants and whistle-blowers?

And, consequently, free press and democracy? How can the media keep its calm when one of the last bastions of electronic privacy in India is being stormed?

Isn’t this a lost cause already?
Perhaps, our reporters and editors have remained complacent, because they do not want to swim against the tide. After all, governments across the world have used excuses like cyber-terrorism, organised crime, pornography, piracy etc. to justify censorship and surveillance regimes. 

The priveleged access that the governments of India, Saudi Arabia and UAE are demanding has already been provided to the governments of USA, Canada and Russia, for example.

We don't know how much they know about us!
The average reader might not be aware of the access that the Indian government has to his/her personal information. 

To be clear, the Indian government, like most other governments, is able to intercept, decrypt, monitor and record sms and voice call traffic by working in partnership with ISP and Telecom operators.

This is legalised through ISP licence agreements, which requires ISPs to provide monitoring equipment that can be used to by various law enforcement and intelligence agencies. There is no clear policy on data-retention policies.

Industry insiders say that SMS messages, telephone call logs, email headers, and web requests are archived from anywhere between three months and a year.

Do these ISPs and telecom operators then delete, anonymise or obfuscate this data? Or do they they retain it for posterity for market research?

In the absence of a privacy law — the Indian citizen can only make intelligent guesses.

Encryption is our friend
As a student, when I passed a love note to my lady-love in class, I would use a symmetric key encryption scheme. 

She would use the same key as I did to unencrypt the machine, ie, substituting the alphabet with the next/previous one.

If someone was able to intercept the key, then all communication between us in both directions would be compromised.

Asymmetric key encryption solves this problem by giving both parties two keys — a public key and a private key. I would use my lady-love’s public key to encrypt a message meant for her.

Only she would be able to unencrypt the message by using her private key. The size of the key — 40bit, 128bit, 256bit etc. determines the strength of the encryption.

The more bits you have, the longer it will take for someone to break through using a brute force method. The brute force method or dictionary method is when you try every single combination —just as you would with an old suitcase.

The time taken also depends on computing resources — whether you are a jealous boyfriend, or the FBI, or a corporation like Google. These days, governments depend on corporations for hardware and network muscle.

How does Blackberry encrypt differently?
Other smart phone providers like IPhone and Nokia make email and Internet traffic transparent to the ISP and telecom operator, making it easy for governments are able to keep track of Internet users on mobile phones just as they monitor dial-up or broadband users. 

Most mobile services come with a basic encryption. Blackberry is different because it introduces an additional level of encryption, and then routes traffic either through corporate servers or through its own servers in Canada and other parts of the world.

The fact that information is routed thus can pose a threat to the Indian government, if officials are using Blackberries to exchange highly classified information.

Then, GoI could be worried if western intelligence agencies are eavesdropping.

How will this end? Will Blackberry leave?
Blackberry has never exited a country, because in the end it has prioritised consumer privacy over commercial compulsions. For example Blackberry has now ‘resolved’ security probwith Saudi Arabia. 

I don’t think we should worry about deals or compromises. However, this is not to say that Blackberry should not be applauded.

They have taken a public stand against unrestricted governmental access to their clients’ information; one should always applaud corporates who fight hard for privacy and civil liberties.

What the Blackberry dilemma is showing us is the social cost of the electronic Big Brother will be steep, as it should be.

To protect citizens’ rights, civil society must resist and insist on suitable checks and balances like governmental transparency and fair judicial oversight.

Read the article in Pune Mirror

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