Tuesday, August 31, 2010

CrackBerry addicts rejoice: No ban in India. For now.

To avoid being shut down, BlackBerry maker said it would allow access to encrypted messages.

By Jason Overdorf
August 31, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — A corporate lawyer who deals with high-profile clients in the United States and Europe, Sunila Awasthi lives by her BlackBerry. But in the wake of an Indian government move to gain access to BlackBerry maker Research in Motion's proprietary encryption technology, she fears she may be spending more late nights at the office.

"Our main concern is confidentiality," Awasthi told GlobalPost. "We advise foreign companies in different jurisdictions and different time zones, so it's very convenient to access confidential information [by BlackBerry]. But if that confidentiality is discontinued, that convenience goes away instantly."

At least where the Indian government is concerned, that's what's about to happen. At an eleventh hour meeting with government officials Monday, Research in Motion (RIM) caved in to India's demands for access to users' emails and other data to avoid an immediate ban on its encrypted data services.

Under the agreement, RIM will immediately implement systems to grant "lawful access by law enforcement agencies" to customer data, India's Home Ministry said in a statement. The
regulatory bodies will evaluate the feasibility of this arrangement for the next 60 days, even as India presses forward with demands to force not only RIM, but also Google and Skype to set up servers for hosting customer accounts in India — which would facilitate easier access to private data and wire tapping of voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) phone calls.

In the meantime, Indian market leader Nokia pre-empted trouble with the announcement that it would move servers for its "push mail" service to India and allow access to India's security agencies.

"The processes here are very transparent, not opaque like in countries like China," said Pankaj Mohindroo, president of the Indian Cellular Association. "They've been given sufficient time by the government, and I think they've done the right thing."

BlackBerry is already starting to look like the Compuserve of the smartphone era thanks to Google's Android operating system, so the blow to its U.S. Department of Defense-certified encryption couldn't come at a worse time. And the leverage that India has exerted as the world's fastest growing mobile market is likely to provide more ammunition for other countries — including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia and Lebanon — which have also sought access to BlackBerry's encrypted data.

BlackBerry addicts like Romil Ratra, general manager of an international hotel, are just happy that they can keep thumbing. Was he relieved to hear RIM had averted a ban? "Very relieved," he said.

Ratra, whose been using a BlackBerry since the brand was first launched in India, says he uses his device constantly. "I'm on the phone a lot, plus I'm a social media addict, between Twitter and Facebook, and a million other things that keep coming up," he said.

"I'm not one of those guys who puts it off when I go to sleep; I leave it on."

In that respect, India is like everyplace else. But it does have some special characteristics that make some of the million-odd BlackBerry users a wee bit wary that the government has extorted its way to
getting the key to the code.

Awasthi, the lawyer, doesn't trust the government to keep her secrets, she says. India doesn't have any privacy laws that cover emails, apart from the general constitutional protections, and the precedent set for voice calls is hardly encouraging.

According to a recent expose by Outlook India, a weekly magazine, India's intelligence services routinely monitor citizens' mobile phones with technology that allows them to pluck conversations out of the air. Those checks and balances that do exist are flouted or manipulated to facilitate questionable wire taps — and wire tapping doesn't require a warrant. Police can get access to a variety of mobile information without a court order.

But it's not just criminals who come under the scanner. Monitoring systems around top hotels routinely pick up conversations between prominent corporate leaders discussing sensitive business dealings. And the only recourse available is too little, too late.

"You can say that we have the fundamental right to privacy under the constitution, but that means I have to go to the Supreme Court every time I want to see it enforced," said Awasthi. "That's not a
practical solution."

Other BlackBerry users are more sanguine about sharing their private data with government spooks.

"I'm not sure exactly how to react," said Ratra. "I don't think I'm happy that somebody is going to be able to monitor my mails, [but] if it's something that BlackBerry is already doing for North America, or Canada, or other countries, there's no reason that they shouldn't do it here."

Hardeep Sachdeva, another corporate lawyer, agrees. He argues that concerns that confidential information could leak from behind the government firewall are unfounded. Moreover, the difficult task of preventing terrorist attacks — not just investigating them after the fact — justifies some curtailment of citizens' fundamental right to privacy.

"Every system provider in this country should provide access to the authorities to ensure that the security of the nation is not compromised," Sachdeva said. "I don't see why BlackBerry should be an

But who will monitor the monitors? As recently as this April, when opposition Bharatiya Janata Party leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy argued that Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance government was misusing wiretaps to spy on political adversaries, and even their own unruly allies. "In the garb of tracking terror, the government is tracking politicians and even their cabinet ministers," Rudy said.

Lucky for them, most Indian pols aren't big on email.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

In Kashmir, inshallah, there will be football

A new documentary on Kashmir offers the opposite of "Invictus."

By Jason Overdorf
August 28, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — When Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar traveled to Kashmir for the first time, in 2009, to research a possible feature film, he discovered a true story that was more inspiring than fiction. He dropped everything and settled in to make a documentary.

Next month, the resulting film, "Inshallah, Football" [2] will premiere at the prestigious Pusan International Film Festival in Korea. The documentary tells the story of a young Argentinean coach who founds a soccer academy in Srinagar to bring so-called "stone pelters" off the killing streets and onto the soccer field. He places many of his players with local professional leagues.

But when he manages to get the team captain an opportunity to train with a professional club in Spain, Kashmir's troubled history emerges to block his efforts, as the government of India denies the boy a passport because two decades earlier his father had joined a militant separatist struggle for an independent Kashmir. At the eleventh hour, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah intervenes on the boy's behalf.

"It's the story of three remarkable men — one is his father who fought for his beliefs, another about the football coach who's come all the way from Argentina to start this football academy, and this young man who is struggling to play football," said Kumar.

That was a summer of hope. When I spoke with coach Juan Marcos Troia (aka "Marco") shortly after Kumar finished filming in 2009, Marco told me happily that his International Sports Academy Trust had trained about 1,000 young men from all over Kashmir — taking at least 50 from the armies of stone-throwing street protesters that plague local police.

He'd stuck it out even after he'd been beaten up by soldiers on the street just five minutes away from the soccer field, after they stopped him for questioning and suspected that he was only pretending to be a foreigner. He'd brought his wife and two daughters with him to Kashmir. The two girls attended school in Srinagar, despite soldiers and curfews, like ordinary Kashmiris. And Marco believed he was making a difference.

"I have seen how it [soccer] is helping to change the mentality of some of the officials in the government and how it's changing the mentality of the people," Troia said at the time. "It's very interesting to see in only two-and-a-half years, how much our program has helped not only football, but also the development of the society."

This summer, as Kumar readies his film, "Inshallah, Football" for Pusan, that hope has been crushed. Spiraling out of control since June, Kashmir seems locked into an escalating pattern of violence, as local residents take to the streets to protest the deaths of innocent civilians, only to see more of their number gunned down by the security forces. Over the past two months, more than 60 civilians have been killed, most of them teenagers. Sport is the last thing on anybody's mind, as local journalists bitterly describe decades-long careers as nothing more than "obituary writing."

"Everything has completely stopped," Kumar told me in a recent phone interview. "There's no chance of anybody getting anywhere. Marco had trained about 1,000 boys and he had them playing in professional leagues. The idea was to send all 11 players to train in Brazil on a scholarship. But in essence, I think the program has ground to a halt."

That makes his film more important than ever. And selection for the Pusan festival promises to attract a wider audience for a story that Kumar hopes will cut through what he describes as a simplistic, blinkered attitude about Kashmir.

"For me, it's a great opportunity," Kumar said. "It's Asia's biggest festival, and it's the right kind of place to show a film like this because it opens up a debate about Asia."

Following the lives of 18-year-old Basharat Bashir and his former militant father, "Inshallah, Football" offers an unusually hopeful perspective on Kashmir's cycle of violence.

But the contemporary events that now form the backdrop for its release make the hope it offers bittersweet. This summer's deadly confrontations have illustrated tragically that, where Kashmir is concerned, India keeps doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Thus, even as the Indian government struggles to win the loyalty of Kashmiris, the film illustrates, it is undermined at every turn by its inability to trust in its own democratic ideals.

And instead of a cricket bat or a soccer ball, local boys pick up stones to throw at the police.