Governmet moots Blackberry controls

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Government has mooted a change to legislation to allow the South African Police Service to get access, through the courts, to the records of people using Research in Motion’s popular BlackBerry communications service, the TechCentral IT news website reports.

It quotes Deputy Minister of Communications Obed Bapela says “a lot of criminality is happening” on BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), the instant messaging platform that has caught on like wildfire in SA. Bapela was speaking at Telkom’s annual Satnac conference in East London on Monday. “We might have to follow Britain and Saudi Arabia to say we need to have [access to] a decryption system if crimes are committed [using the BlackBerry service],” Bapela says.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has criticised social networks, including BBM, threatening to regulate them for allegedly helping fuel recent riots in that country. Cameron has proposed banning troublemakers from social networks. Bapela says the SA government’s intention is not to spy on people’s communication on social networks, TechCentral adds.

Rather, government wants to allow the police to access encrypted communications systems when they believe this will help solve criminal cases. “We’ll still go to a magistrate or judge to say we want to investigate [a particular] citizen,” says Bapela.

In a follow-up interview with TechCentral, Bapela explains that the debate around encrypted cellphone messaging systems was first introduced “a year or two ago” by Minister of State Security, Siyabonga Cwele. “People saw devil’s horns all over that, so he retreated,” Bapela says. The plan is now being revisited and driven by the Department of Communications as part of its plans to introduce new policies to tackle cyber crime, he says.
“Because BBM is an encrypted environment, people have begun to use it to plan and operationalise criminal activities,” Bapela tells TechCentral. “That is a concern that the law enforcement agencies are raising with government through the joint cluster on peace and security.” He says government wants to “find a solution with BlackBerry” and assure ordinary consumers the plans have nothing to do with the state wanting to spy on them. “We will open a debate on the issue. Whatever fears people express, we will … need to give them assurances so we can build trust in the use of technology in SA.”

Bapela says government is not specifically targeting the BlackBerry platform, but rather any company that offers encrypted systems that can be used to commit crime. “Government mustn’t compromise people’s privacy.”

Civil unrest in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and other parts of the world this year has played no part in government’s thinking on the issue, he adds. Social communication systems like BBM, Twitter and Facebook have played an important role in helping protestors organise demonstrations against autocratic governments. “We are a democracy,” Bapela says. “We are not [trying to] suppress freedom of expression.”

He says government has not yet engaged with Research in Motion on the issue. But he says it will be discussed in cabinet this year, with the required changes the law to be introduced before the end of March next year.

Research in Motion was embroiled in disputes with several governments on the issue last year.

Reuters last ear August reported the BBM application had spread rapidly in the Gulf Arab region where it is a popular business and social networking tool. But because the data is encrypted and sent to offshore servers, it cannot be tracked locally. That has raised fears in security-conscious Gulf states, especially in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that a lack of access could fetter their ability to ferret out potential spies, assassins or Islamic militants, the news service said. In both cases, Research in Motion capitulated.

Research in Motion has come under scrutiny from other countries as well, including India, Lebanon and Algeria.

SA authorities can already access phone records and listen in on conversations under the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act 70 of 2002. Under the law every SIM card owner had to declare their contact, address and identity details to a network operator, or face being cut off from the network. The process was completed earlier this year.



The measure was introduced in 2005 to fight crime. The police said criminals often use mobile phones to plan and coordinate criminal activity but at hearings on the matter in 2007 and 2008 police and justice department officials contradicted each other on the expected effectiveness of the registration and the need to record particular data.