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RIM’s Bargaining Chip for Dodging Future International BlackBerry Bans: Privacy

Research In Motion has struggled in the United Arab Emirates–the BlackBerry was almost banned. But what does a deal between RIM and the UAE mean for RIM’s foreign operations?

BlackBerry

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Research In Motion (RIM) has had a
tough time of things in the United Arab Emirates. Citing encryption
concerns, the BlackBerry was almost banned. But RIM and the UAE struck a last-minute deal. And when Saudi Arabia threatened a similar ban, RIM agreed to place a server inside Saudi Arabia and grant access to an undisclosed amount of user information.

In the end, the deals that saved RIM from a ban could set a dangerous precedent for anyone, particularly in the Mideast, who prefers the government keep its nose out of private citizens’ BBMs, SMS’s, emails, and more.

Ironically, Canada-based RIM touts the BlackBerry’s encryption scheme and
private key-based security structure as highly effective and, in
practical terms, it does block snooping by outside agencies. It’s these same
features that make BlackBerry handsets attractive to political
dissidents. The UAE’s threat in August to cut off BlackBerry service by Oct. 11 unless
the government was given access to encrypted servers
that contain e-mails and messages came days after an unauthorized
demonstration over high gasoline prices
was organized via
BlackBerry in Abu Dhabi. According to advocacy group Reporters
Without Borders, 18-year-old Emirati Badr Ali Saiwad al-Dhohori was
arrested for organizing the protest after his BlackBerry PIN was
found in an instant message.

The service encryption does also make it ideal for terrorists, and it’s these official stated “terrorism concerns” that the Emirates have cited for threatened bans and demands for server access. BlackBerrys were
used to coordinate the devastating 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks
, for example. And despite the fact that wildly
popular
BlackBerrys are most known as the tools of choice for e-flirting in Saudi Arabia, the government there alleges that
undefined “terrorists” also use them. Dubai police chief Dhai
Khalfan Tamim also alleged that BlackBerrys are
used by foreign spies
in Dubai and elsewhere.

Few Emiratis or
Emirates residents were willing to go on the record to speculate on
what form the RIM compromise with the Emirati Telecommunications Registry Authority took. According to a terse statement, “The Telecommunications
Regulatory Authority (TRA) has confirmed that Blackberry services are
now compliant with the UAE’s telecommunications regulatory
framework […] all Blackberry services in the UAE will continue to
operate as normal.” However, Middle Eastern
tech blog T-break summed
up local concerns
: “This means that services prior to the
announcement were not compliant with the framework. From that, one
would deduct that RIM has allowed some kind of access to BlackBerry
data to the UAE government—possibly through an encryption key.
Whatever the details are, leaving decisions to the last minute was
not necessarily the right way to go.”

The ongoing story is how RIM will deal
with similar pressures in other countries. Hamadoun Toure, the secretary general of the International
Telecommunications Unions–effectively the UN’s tech chief–has
gone on the record urging RIM to give “co-operation between
governments and the private sector on security issues.” While it is
likely that intelligence agencies such as the NSA may
have the capability
to crack RIM’s encryption schemes, giving
foreign governments easy access to servers makes it much easier. The
Indian government, following the Mumbai attacks, understandably
strongarmed RIM into granting
access to BlackBerry messages
. Indonesia is likely
next
to demand access to BlackBerry servers, while the American
government is eager
to broker “compromise”
between RIM and foreign governments.
Of course, the fact that RIM’s encryption may not be truly secure
will drive
away customers
.

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However, the lack of transparency in
the RIM-Emirati deal is causing unexpected speculation. The Financial
Times’
Simeon Kerr noted that the assumed monitoring of Emirati
BlackBerrys coincides
with the deepening influence of UAE state security over economic
matters
. Middle East business publication the Kipp Report
noted that the agreement also occurred while the UAE was refusing
to grant Canada access to a Dubai airstrip for Afghanistan
operations
.

BlackBerry users in the Emirates are
already noting post-agreement
service weirdness
in social media. It is important to note that
RIM’s agreement with the Emiratis follows a reputed 2009 spyware attack on
BlackBerry users in the UAE. Etisalat, one of the nation’s leading
mobile phone providers, sent users a “software update” that
was in reality spyware
.

According to RIM, “Etisalat appears to
have distributed a telecommunications surveillance application […]
independent sources have concluded that it is possible that the
installed software could then enable unauthorised access to private
or confidential information stored on the user’s smartphone.” The
application also caused poor battery life and reception, along with
multiple reports of dead headsets. Etisalat enjoys close governmental
ties and the precedent is not reassuring for BlackBerry users in the
Emirates at all. An email sent to RIM asking for additional information about the Emirati agreement was not responded to by press time.

[Image via Flickr user Editor B]