A CALL by Deputy Communications Minister Obed Bapela yesterday for new regulations giving police authority to access messages sent via BlackBerry's encrypted messenger service (BBM) has puzzled technology experts.
SA already has legislation allowing this - the Regulation of Interception of Communication Act (Rica).
This year millions of South Africans registered their SIM cards in the face of a threat of disconnection. Once registered, SIM cards can be tracked and traced. This is meant to trace people who use phones to commit crimes.
Mr Bapela told delegates to Telkom's Southern African Telecommunication Network and Application conference in East London yesterday that the government was considering following Britain's and Saudi Arabia's call for decryption of BlackBerry messages "if crimes are committed using the BlackBerry service".
He promised delegates that the government's intention was not to spy on citizens' communication on social networks. His proposed legislation would be used only once a crime had been committed - and then permission would be sought from a magistrate.
Mr Bapela said later that SA had a "high threat of crime" which ought to be given priority.
His proposal follows recent calls by UK MPs for a block on BlackBerry messenger services during the London riots. Their reasoning, that BBM was being used to stoke riots, was based on the fact that 37% of UK youth used BBM and not on research, said technology expert Arthur Goldstuck.
Mr Goldstuck and Democratic Alliance communications spokeswoman Natasha Michael said Rica was intended to deal with all eventualities.
Ms Michael, who on served on Parliament's justice committee before taking up her present post, said: "The basis of Rica is good, old-fashioned wire tapping - the interception of messages. The type of technology would be irrelevant. Whether it was BBM or SMS, Rica allows for access."
Mr Goldstuck said while "no public- spirited person would deny the government the right to access any source that could be used to commit a crime", he believed the statements by Mr Bapela on the alleged misuse of BlackBerry could "be considered reckless".
"In the case of the UK riots, the arrests led to the interception of information on Facebook and Twitter. There was never any evidence of misconduct via BBM," he said.
Mr Goldstuck said it was unfortunate that Mr Bapela had used the examples of Saudi Arabia and the UK to justify his position - a " despotic regime and a country that has shown itself to be ignorant of instant messaging".
Mr Bapela said he had yet to engage with BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM), but he was hopeful they would find a solution, given the seriousness of crime in SA.
RIM's co-operation would be needed for decryption. RIM has shown itself willing to co-operate in other countries where governments have raised concerns about BBM, such as the United Arab Emirates.
The Department of Communications did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.