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BlackBerry allows Indian authorities to intercept messages 'to fight terrorism'

BlackBerry has handed Indian law enforcement agencies the ability to intercept users' digital communications.

According to a leaked government document seen by the Times of India (opens in new tab), government agencies will now be able to track emails and attachments sent between BlackBerry devices on a real time basis.

They will also be able to check whether BlackBerry Messenger communications have been delivered or read and even monitor what websites users have visited.

"Barring a few minor points for improvement of viewers, the lawful interception system for BlackBerry Services is ready for use," reads the document.

It seems that the Indian government has dropped the demand for access to business emails sent via the BlackBerry Enterprise Server. The agencies do however want to know which businesses are using the service.

A BlackBerry spokesperson said, "The lawful access capability now available to BlackBerry's carrier partners meets the standard required by the Government of India for all consumer messaging services offered in the Indian marketplace.

"We also wish to underscore, once again, that this enablement of lawful access does not extend to BlackBerry Enterprise Server."

The agreement ends a long dispute between the two sides. In August 2010, the smartphone maker narrowly avoided a legal ban when it offered a series of proposals to support the country's need for "lawful access."

BlackBerry communications are heavily encrypted and sent via a server in Canada, where the company is based. Indian security agencies argued that they needed access to all messages and the keys to decrypt them in order to fight terrorist activity.

The company said however that it "does not possess a 'master key', nor does any 'backdoor' exist". Instead the firm has now set up a monitoring system based in Mumbai that will soon be handed over to the government.

As part of the deal, BlackBerry will train up to five Indian officials at its Canadian headquarters so they can operate and maintain the facility.

The struggling smartphone maker will be keen not to lose the right to do business in the second largest mobile phone market in the world (opens in new tab), and it seems these steps will help ensure it does not. Whether consumers will be put off by the announcement is yet to be seen.

The document said that nine of 10 networks that provide BlackBerry services in India are in the process of activating the interception system.

It is unclear whether the Indian authorities will now turn their attention to Apple, which applies end-to-end encryption to iMessage and Facetime chats.

How officials would deal with the soon to launch, if it takes off in the country, is another matter altogether. The developers of the Icelandic based ultra-secure messaging app (opens in new tab) said "we would rather close down the service before letting anyone in".

Tomas is co-founder of Lucky Pilgrim, a team of journalists, photographers and art directors who connect brands to audiences through words, imagery and design. He was formerly editorial director at Chapel and managing editor at Courier magazine, and was a writer for ITProPortal as well as The Independent, EastLondonLines, The Sunday Times Magazine, and Croon.