Technological terror

The BlackBerry enterprise messaging device was found in the rucksacks of the armed gang that terrorised Mumbai.

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By  Imthishan Giado Published  November 30, 2008

There’s one piece of free advertising this week that Research in Motion (RIM) would probably like to keep very quiet.

The firm’s popular BlackBerry enterprise messaging device was found by police in rucksacks belonging to the armed gang that terrorised Mumbai this week. The standoff lasted nearly four days and claimed the lives of close to 200 people.

Although it’s still too early to determine the precise usage of the phones, initial reports seems to suggest that the terrorists used them to monitor news feed and live streams from websites in both India and the UK. With this information, the terrorists were able to stay ahead of police and Army efforts to apprehend them.

A number of pundits have already jumped on board proclaiming that a new age of technological terrorism is upon us and the truth is, it’s hard not to be horrified by the prospect of what this development brings.

A decade ago, a laptop would have been the preferred means of getting information on the go. One can only speculate however, that the terrorists did not have multimedia connectivity or the easy computing provided by large screens high on their agenda for the attacks.

Instead, they were most likely looking for solid battery life, reasonable durability, and most importantly, the capability to browse the web in a rudimentary fashion. However, what they were probably not looking for was e-mail capability – knowing as they must have that e-mails and telephone calls would have been heavily monitored in the hours following the commencement of that attack. Other, more makeshift options of keeping in touch with their handlers would have to suffice.

Indeed, at one point, Indian authorities requested that individuals stop reporting on the movements of police and army forces using the popular Twitter service – under suspicion that the constant flow of texts were virtually advertising their plans to terrorists.

It’s no surprise that the terrorists used the Blackberries inside the besieged hotels – outside of major financial centres, these were the most likely to have widespread wireless connectivity. Even if the power was cut to the building, the upmarket nature of the suburbs meant that they could almost certainly count on finding an unsecured hotspot close by.

And even if the attackers lost their phones in the heat of battle, they would be sure to find them in the hands of hotel staff or guests (most likely business travellers) – which also meant that battery chargers would not be difficult to locate either.

It all adds up to an uncomfortable conclusion: the BlackBerry is the terrorist’s handset of choice. How long will it be till RIM figures out a way to provide remote lockdown capabilities to law enforcement agencies?

My guess is, RIM’s working on it right now.

Imthishan Giado is the deputy editor of Arabian Computer News.

3516 days ago
Prof Philbert Suresh

Interesting debate is going on the campus under he GUST Logistics Forum within a traditional topic that gives a new thinking on how to face the technology challeneges esp if it falls in the wrong hands. GPSS (Global Positioning Satellite System) technology has been already been identified in active bythe terrorist who waged a sea-brne attack on Mumbai. Your article in this issue is also hitting the nail on the head with what common people should be aware of now - the Blackberry. Ultmiately, it is human inteligence that prevails over the proper or improper use of technology Let us pray that it will be to the good of the community always.

3516 days ago
the MindSmith

The Indian government had just recently obtained the escrow key for Blackberry devices supplied in India; as have other governments such as the US; thereby enabling the government to intercept Blackberry communications for devices registered under the India Blackberry service. Many people are not aware of this and therefore mistakenly assume that Blackberry is 'interception proof' by authorities. This could explain the reason why Blackberry was chosen; simply put they assumed it was secure even to governments. A major oversight on the part of the Indian government was that during such a siege moist countries would implement a 'blackout' on GSM type communications within a certain radius of the hot spot; this is something that the UK government have mastered but apparently the Indian authorities never implemented during this incident. Blackberry is more secure than other devices, but not when it comes to authorities who have legitimate access to the backend systems hosted in their country where the service is being locally provided from.

3517 days ago

Controls to kill - or monitor? - electronic devices in situations like the Mumbai attacks will probably come. But... The worry is, it starts with - very understandable - desires to prevent similar atrocities, and ends with police forces and governments using these powers for rather less noble and clear-cut purposes. Cf surveillance powers granted in the US and UK, which are now eroding basic freedoms of ordinary people. Better to have powers to stop potential - but rare - attacks, or preserve human rights all the time? No easy answer...

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