Should RIM hold its line on the BlackBerry?

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Encryption is the sort of topic that rarely makes it into the mainstream media, but the recent hoopla over BlackBerry security, namely its encryption procedures, has drawn the ire of governments throughout Asia.

India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia – all have taken issue with BlackBerry services and their inability to monitor encrypted communications. On the one hand you have business (and the security community), who no doubt value the secure nature and reliability of communications via these devices. On the other hand there’s Research in Motion, which must engage in a delicate political balancing act that requires it to serve more than one master.

For RIM to continue providing secure, reliable communications, the company requires a strong revenue stream, which includes expansion into emerging markets. However, this expansion may come at the cost of security and, ultimately, the confidence of its consumers – the bulk of which come from enterprises.

When viewed from the American perspective, this becomes a sticky issue. When delegates convened in Philadelphia and drafted the first amendment to the Bill of Rights, which prohibited Congress from passing any law that limited freedom of speech, it signaled that communication, regardless of the content, was a fundamental right.

Of course, the courts and legislatures have “fine-tuned” our rights to communicate here in the US, as well as government’s role in this area. Depending on one’s perspective, many have also used this as part of the penumbra of privacy insinuated by the Bill of Rights, which has required even further clarification and boundaries established by the courts. We are free to say, free to think, and, sometimes, government is free to monitor.

Commentators nowadays love to make assumptions about how our forefathers would view certain dilemmas based wholly on the writings or transcripts from a bygone era. The Virginia patriot Patrick Henry may have said “Give me liberty, or give me death”, but he never mentioned anything about unmonitored, encrypted digital communications.

Which brings me back to RIM and its current dilemma. Part of me hopes that RIM never caves, and holds onto those encryption keys like they were the last morsel of food on what had become a barren earth. Yet I can’t help but recognize the company’s right to remain flexible and ensure its future success. With so much on the line, it’s a decision not to be taken lightly.

Perhaps the most lucid analysis of the situation comes from the foreign minister of Bahrain, a tiny island in the Persian Gulf. When commenting on several governments’ objections to the encrypted communications the BlackBerry provides – and the inability to monitor these communications – Sheik Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa told the AP “there are many other ways for the criminals or terrorists to communicate, so we decided we might as well live with it”. Of course, he was talking about his country’s refusal to threaten a ban on the BlackBerry simply because terrorists or criminals may them to avoid monitoring by authorities.

He also added, in a statement that likely makes Ben Franklin fans stand up and cheer: “We really kind of loose a lot of communication freedom just for the sake of dealing with one matter”.

To paraphrase Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver, Chad (dare I say) Ochocinco: too true Sheik Khaled, too true.

So I ask our readers, in this case, should RIM sacrifice some liberty for the sake of safety? Are they sacrificing their own liberty at all? Or that of their customers? Are encrypted (and unmonitored) communications a right at all in this sense, or are they just something we all would like to have?

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this, as perhaps they will help clarify my own.

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