Research In Motion (RIM) said on Thursday that, after much delay, it would introduce its BlackBerry wireless e-mail service in China. But the announcement of its joint venture with China Mobile Communications Corp (中國移動通訊), which came with few details, prompted questions about how the Canadian company's product would fit into the Chinese government's program of communications surveillance and censorship.
When selling the BlackBerry service to government agencies and corporations in North America and Europe, RIM promotes its sophisticated encryption technology that it says makes it impossible even for wireless service providers or the company itself to snoop into the contents of messages as they pass between its devices and e-mail servers. Once they arrive at the server and are decoded, however, they may be vulnerable to Chinese government surveillance efforts.
Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University and a co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, said that the centralized nature of the BlackBerry service, as compared with e-mail between PCs, could appeal to any government interested in controlling information.
"I think this is actually very helpful to Chinese government officials in their efforts to exercise some control over digital communications, because the BlackBerry is a digital device bundled with a single service and a gateway that is RIM," Zittrain said.
"With BlackBerry you have a single point of control," he said.
While Zittrain and others doubt that RIM will ever hand over its encryption secrets to Chinese authorities or China Mobile, he said he believed that the government might use other routes.
The closed BlackBerry system, for example, makes it relatively easy to store messages passing through the system once they have been decoded by RIM's server software.
Similarly, mail servers with RIM software could readily build databases about who is exchanging messages through the system.
Another traditional selling point for the BlackBerry, the ability to update or change the handheld units remotely, could also be useful for Chinese authorities, Zittrain added.
"The way this device is made means that however it operates on Tuesday, if the company comes under government pressure on Wednesday, by Thursday it can become a different tool," he said.
It appears that China's current attempts at censoring e-mail are relatively crude.
Ronald Deibert, a University of Toronto political scientist who is also a member of the OpenNet Initiative, a joint venture between his university, Cambridge and Oxford universities and the Harvard Law School, said that the group's tests had found that China was generally limited to blocking messages with subject lines containing words the government found unacceptable or subversive.
Scanning entire messages, he said, was probably beyond its current technical abilities.
RIM declined to make anyone available for an interview. In a brief e-mail message, Mark Guibert, the company's vice president for corporate marketing, said: "RIM was not required to make any concessions. China Mobile is an excellent, long-term strategic partner and they have required nothing more than extensive in-market collaboration for business development, just like all of our other carrier partners around the world."