Access to data a matter for caution

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 12:00am


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Having the world's most secure encryption system on its smartphones is becoming a bit of a liability for Research In Motion, the Canadian maker of the popular BlackBerry. British police demanded RIM assist with their investigations into the country's worst riots in decades, and the company pledged full co-operation.

There is a touch of irony in this. Rioters used encrypted BlackBerry messages to organise the mayhem. So the police demand is likely to involve RIM handing over personal data about suspected rioters - including their names, messages sent and received, identities of people they sent messages to, and their times and locations.

Imagine if the same request had been made by another government, such as China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, RIM ran into trouble in all these countries last year because of complaints security forces could not monitor electronic communications on BlackBerries in a national emergency.

True, there is the suspicion personal data may be used to target dissidents and stifle free speech. But, these nations all have legitimate security concerns and do face terrorist threats.

Is there any guarantee British security services will not abuse the personal data collected? Over the past decade large phone companies in the US turned over massive amounts of personal communications data to security agencies under the pretext of defeating terrorists.

Though Britain and the US have better safeguards, they are not foolproof. The abuse of citizens and their personal information is not exclusively confined to authoritarian governments. The world press needs to keep a vigilant eye on all governments, both foreign and domestic.