India’s BlackBerry users dismayed over data block threat

Indian BlackBerry users reacted with dismay on Friday to a government threat to block data services on security grounds, although some said it was necessary in the ongoing fight against extremism.

The internet-enabled smartphones have become a must-have accessory in big cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, as a sign of wealth, style and success for anyone from well-heeled college students to corporate executives.

On Thursday, the Indian government gave the BlackBerry’s Canadian maker, Research In Motion (RIM), until the end of August to allow security agencies access to its encrypted mail and messaging services or have them blocked.

“It’s definitely bad for us,” said Ritika Bakliwal, a college student having morning coffee with two friends at an upmarket cafe in the heart of Mumbai’s business district.

“So many people are using BlackBerries,” the 20-year-old told said, holding a Curve 8520 model in a colourful plastic cover to protect it against the monsoon rains. “Once it’s banned, sales will go down,” she added.

Bakliwal and her friends said that they all use their phones for instant messaging, email and browsing the internet. They also use Google and Skype, which are also in New Delhi’s sights, according to Friday’s Financial Times.

“I hope BlackBerry and the government reach some sort of agreement so we don’t have to be affected,” said Shaheda Madraswala. “The government does need security because of the threats, but I hope they reach a compromise.”

India’s ultimatum to RIM is motivated by concerns that the heavily encrypted services could be used by militants.

The 10 Islamist extremists who attacked Mumbai in November 2008, killing 166 people, used satellite phones and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) devices to keep in touch with their Pakistani handlers, an investigation found.

A block on data services would reduce the expensive devices to hand-phone-use only.

‘In denial’
“I am in denial to be honest,” said Siddhartha Butalia, a 25-year-old senior product designer in New Delhi. “It’s ridiculous how anyone can block a phone service. BlackBerry is the least of the government’s problems.”

“I am really upset,” added businessman Ambuj Nautiyal (28). “I just got the latest BlackBerry and if it gets blocked, it’ll be useless to me.

“I think the government and BlackBerry should find a way out of it. Why did the government give BlackBerry the go-ahead in the first place?”

BlackBerry devices, which sell from about 14 000 rupees ($300), and other smartphones have become a preferred way of keeping in touch among business people and the upper echelons of Indian society.

Some users, though, said that a block on services would not affect them.

“It doesn’t really make a difference,” said 25-year-old marketing executive Kavya Chandra. “I just started using it anyway and I’d rather not always be available. It’s only technology after all. My life does not depend on it.”

Vipul Modi, a high court lawyer in Mumbai, said he discontinued data services on his BlackBerry about six months ago because these were too expensive to use abroad.

He admitted that in a country where broadband internet connections to home PCs are still patchy, accessing the web through his phone was more reliable and less prone to software viruses.

But he supported the government’s move to access encrypted data — if it is justified.

“Commercial interests cannot override national interests,” the 44-year-old said. “The government must have the right to what it seeks. BlackBerry can surely find other ways of retaining its commercial edge in India.” — AFP

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