BlackBerry launching in China, but has RIM compromised too much over Indian security?

Subscribers of China Mobile will soon be able to enjoy consumer BlackBerry services, as the world’s largest telecoms operator has partnered with manufacturer RIM to launch the services across China.

Corporate customers are currently the only beneficiaries of BlackBerry in China, as China Mobile offer only BlackBerry Enterprise Server-based services. Having announced the intention to target the consumer market towards the end of 2009, RIM and China Mobile have begun operations to integrate the BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) technology with China Mobile’s billing systems.

RIM has recently been plagued by security concerns in other territories, and so is attempting to make further inroads into the Chinese market, working with the third largest Chinese operator China Telecom as well as the market leader.

However, RIM’s attempts to increase its Chinese operations have hit several hurdles. Expansion has been somewhat stymied by China Mobile’s focus on the enterprise market, while the dearth of BlackBerry devices which operate on China Mobile’s TD-SCDMA-based 3G network has also proved problematic.

Despite these setbacks, RIM is claimed to be launching a new Chinese version of its App World store, and its future in China looks positive - a stark contrast to its ongoing problems in other countries, with India being the current focus.

After holding what were described as ‘last ditch’ talks with high-level Indian security authorities last week, RIM has agreed to provide ‘technical solutions’ that will allow the monitoring of its encrypted email and messenger services by local security agencies.

The deal was reached ahead of the deadline, which was set for the 31st of August. Indian authorities have confirmed that the new monitoring system will be trialled over the next 60 days to determine whether it meets the government’s requirements. During this time, BlackBerry owners will experience no interruptions to services.

The deal represents a compromise to avert a total ban on BlackBerries in India – as the second-largest mobile market in the world, this could be a potential disaster for RIM. The Indian Government has demanded real-time access to RIM’s BlackBerry Enterprise Email and a readable form of its Messenger service data, claiming that this traffic could represent a threat to national security if not correctly monitored.

RIM’s initial response was to highlight the fact that it does not possess a master key to unscramble BlackBerry data as the enterprise service’s security tech requires a user-created key – therefore, corporate data is entirely inaccessible to RIM. However, in previous meetings RIM had suggested that it could share the IP address of BlackBerry Enterprise servers, as well as the PIN and IMEI numbers of individual BlackBerry devices – measures which still did not meet India’s security criteria.

The specifics of the new agreement are currently unknown, although one Indian official was quoted as saying that RIM would provide "some technical solutions which people suggested—from virtual servers to making these accessible in various ways." If this solution is found to be unacceptable, RIM will be required to locate its servers within India if it wishes to continue operations in the country.

Reports claim that BlackBerry Messenger services will continue, as RIM has promised the authorities real-time access to communications via a new tool which will be delivered by November. Unless a similar solution is delivered for the BlackBerry corporate email service in the same timeframe, the Indian government has declared that the service will be suspended.

With roughly 1 million customers in India – 2% of its global market share – averting a blanket ban was evidently of key importance to RIM. However, the vendor’s actions have drawn criticism from various spectators who fear for the potential international ramifications of the compromise.

RIM has been beset with problems recently following the UAE’s crackdown on BlackBerries over security concerns. While this latest development has averted a ban, it has potentially compromised the privacy of RIM’s clients – indeed, the vendor has allegedly been forced to call meetings with major corporate clients (among them Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan) in order to placate their concerns over the service’s security.

Romal Shetty of KPGM said: “If BlackBerry allows this to happen here in India, it’s not just an Indian effect, it’s going to affect them in many other countries.” RIM meanwhile has claimed that it will not make "special deals for specific countries."

RIM is reportedly not the only communications giant to be subjected to Indian security concerns – the country’s government is widely expected to demand similar access to Google’s Gmail and Skype’s VoIP services.

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