this piece appeared as the edit in the Sunday Guardian on August 15. Happy Independence Day!
Two competing questions lie at the heart of the BlackBerry vs Indian Government debate. The first concerns individual freedoms: what level of state-sponsored intrusion (or snooping) into personal affairs is a law-abiding citizen expected to tolerate? The second concerns state power: since the government is deemed culpable in the event of a security crisis, is it not entitled to use every tool at its disposal to prevent such a scenario from arising?
The governments most concerned with “terror”, the United States, United Kingdom, India, Israel and so on, are in an unenviable position. The rapid proliferation of communication options that new technology provides is a direct offshoot of these governments most sacred cows: commerce, capitalism and competition. How can the United States government ask RIM, the makers of BlackBerry, or Apple, the makers of the iPhone, to pare down the technology they are able to provide for their users, without starting to sound a bit too much like China? The world thrives on giving entrepreneurs the freedom to innovate; can governments then ask them to innovate only as much as is suitable?
Once it became clear that the terrorists involved in the 26/11 attack on Mumbai utilised various types of new technology very effectively, the Indian security apparatus was entitled to demand some retrenchment of the options available. However, this is an issue that requires very careful handling, and a degree of common sense. RIM is right in asserting that there is no evidence that any of their phones have been used in a terrorist attack. Why single out one over the other? The iPhone offers a vast array of communication options, more certainly than the BlackBerry, but no one is asking them to hand over any codes. Is it because the BlackBerry has been much more successful than the iPhone in India? Does the Indian government genuinely believe that, in the event of a terrorist attack, jehadi operatives will only use the phone that is most popular amongst Indians? Or is it simply that security agencies in India are not comfortable having so much communication bouncing around the country without their being able to monitor it?
There are other issues at stake. Over the years, Indian security agencies have acquired the reputation for not being overly concerned about the personal freedoms of the citizens of India. What guarantees will the government provide that they will only utilise these monitors to track terrorist activity? Will they also use it to see who is complaining about government policies in the Naxal-affected regions? Will they use it to check if Indians are accessing pornography, which is still, ludicrously, a violation of the penal code? Will they use it to make sure there are no cards parties on Diwali?
Many technology experts believe that we are on the precipice of a great revolution in mobile computing. Devices like the BlackBerry and the iPhone are precursors to handheld computers that will be able to do infinitely more. The first wave of these products has already hit the market. If the government is worried about the BlackBerry, just wait till they see what the iPad can do.