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Global Deals Threaten BlackBerry’s Vital Encryption

The far-flung folks of Euronet Worldwide represent just one of many armies of corporate warriors toting BlackBerry phones around the globe.

Those keyboard-centric gadgets not only let Euronet troops easily call central offices in Leawood and Budapest, but they also outfit those workers to send highly encrypted e-mails.

That means they can share sensitive messages about the company’s network of ATMs and other money-handling machines without worry that a competitor or criminal is likely to eavesdrop.

But now a showdown between commerce and sovereignty threatens to disarm those forces. Ongoing talks could ban the BlackBerry in some countries or, perhaps just as critical, remove the cloak of encryption that makes its e-mails secure, as BlackBerry maker Research In Motion reportedly agreed to do in India.

“One of the reasons we use the BlackBerry is the strong encryption,” said Dave Spickard, Euronet’s director of information technology. “It would definitely cause some issues if that was lost.”

The fight emerged earlier this summer when the United Arab Emirates threatened a ban on BlackBerrys in the Gulf nation if its security services didn’t have access to messages sent over the devices.

Then Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Algeria and India started pushing for similar controls _ contending mostly that they would be unduly vulnerable to organized crime or terrorism if the handsets continued to operate without some way for the governments to monitor some communications.

The concerns raised by India, with its huge and expanding economy, elevated the stakes. Of an estimated 46 million BlackBerrys in use worldwide, the number is over 1 million in India and growing fast.

Technology companies, civil libertarians and security agencies are watching the struggle closely. What is a BlackBerry issue today could soon spill over to Skype or Gmail tomorrow.

Civil libertarians are anxious about whether RIM or other technology companies will surrender too much control to countries where human rights and the rule of law are sometimes tossed aside.

They note the way Google has, at times, agreed to block searches of some websites in return for access to China.

If RIM agrees to allow a nation access to encrypted e-mails, activists want that made clear to customers.

“They need to be transparent about what they’re doing and push back in collaboration with other companies,” said Cynthia Wong, an attorney for the Center for Democracy and Technology. “They’ve got leverage. If these countries want to draw in international business, they need to show that communications won’t be spied on without good cause.”

Unlike most other cell phones, the e-mails on some BlackBerry business accounts are routed through RIM separate from other cell traffic and deeply encrypted. One reported compromise with the United Arab Emirates would place special BlackBerry servers in the UAE, but without giving the government automatic access.

Yet with some of the most secure traffic, even RIM cannot decipher BlackBerry e-mails. Rather, the messages are tousled in such a way that only the person who is supposed to receive them, using a digital key, can pick the code. It’s a process that’s usually invisible to the users, but it can prove invaluable to someone concerned about corporate espionage or inappropriate government snooping.

That same technology can be troubling to governments worried about sophisticated forms of crime or terrorism.

Encryption, in fact, can be seen as a military tool. The U.S. government has at times treated the export of encryption technology similar to selling weapons to foreign rivals.

In the United States, companies such as Research In Motion and Google and other Internet service providers have generally cooperated with the government in releasing information when law enforcement secures search warrants. Additionally, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the National Security Agency persuaded several wireless carriers to share records of calls made over more than 200 million phones.

Some analysts note that simply because a government isn’t hassling BlackBerry or Google for access to their customers’ conversations doesn’t mean their spy agencies aren’t listening. France, for example, has a reputation of corporate espionage gathered by the government and shared with French businesses.

Owen Cote at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s security studies program said that the difference between India and Great Britain or between the United Arab Emirates and the United States might be more about their varying abilities to eavesdrop secretly.

“Not all government capabilities are the same,” Cote said, noting that busting some encryption by brute force of powerful computers may be beyond the reach of governments such as those in Dubai.

Others question whether a government crackdown on BlackBerrys would do anything to improve a country’s security. They note that the November 2008 terror attacks that left 166 people dead in Mumbai were carried out with relatively basic Nokia phones. In fact, they note that BlackBerrys, because ownership requires proof of identity and contact information, are less likely tools for nefarious acts.

In fact, e-mail accounts through tech giants Google, Yahoo or Microsoft are free and simple to acquire anonymously _ or at least pseudonymously. While not built into a cell phone, they still offer a cheap and relatively simple way to hide messages behind robust encryption.

That only gives more reason, said Privacy Times editor and publisher Evan Hendricks, for RIM to resist government controls.

“BlackBerry needs to stand by its customers and keep their stuff encrypted,” he said. “To the extent they don’t protect, it hurts the reputation of the business.”

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Global Deals Threaten BlackBerry’s Vital Encryption