The UAE, which includes the business centres of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, said it would prevent BlackBerry services such as email, web browsing and text messaging from October, after first raising concerns with the Canadian manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM) three years ago. The ban will extend to visitors to the UAE who take their BlackBerrys with them, although phone services will still be available.
Within hours of the UAE’s decision to block BlackBerry services, a Saudi telecommunications official said the desert kingdom would begin blocking the BlackBerry messaging service starting later this month. However, Saudi Arabia and the company that makes BlackBerry mobile devices are testing a plan that would allow the government to monitor messages sent to and from the smart phones. RIM went to work on providing a server for the country. On August 9, it was reported that the server was now operational, allowing BlackBerry users to continue to use the instant messaging service.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the UAE’s telecoms authority said the decision to ban data services “is based on the fact that, in their current form, certain BlackBerry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns”.The UAE government, which relies heavily on high-tech surveillance measures as key elements of its security infrastructure, said it had had discussions with RIM about its concerns but no progress was made. But Mohammed al-Ghanim, director-general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, dismissed suggestions that the regulator’s decision had anything to do with censorship.
“It is about regulatory compliance and we are not asking for RIM to do anything that is not apparently being done in developed nations or so-called open countries around the world,” he said.
The Gulf states have singled out BlackBerry, which has 46m users worldwide, because unlike rivals, it encrypts its data and processes it through a handful of secure operational centres, chiefly in Canada, putting them outside of local jurisdictions. That makes it a more secure network and popular for corporate and government users, but more difficult to monitor. Other smartphones, like the Apple iPhone, are not tied to one e-mail service. In general, that means e-mail to and from the devices mostly travels over the open Internet and can be relatively easily monitored.
The move to suspend data services on the popular devices is the latest flare-up as governments in the Middle East and other countries including China, Turkey and Pakistan grapple with the free flow of information over the internet.The administration in Bahrain recently banned the provision of local news on BlackBerry devices. In Kuwait, in contrast, the instant messaging service will continue, but following negotiations between the Kuwaiti Communications Ministry and RIM, 3,000 websites with licentious content are to be blocked.
Last month, the Indian government renewed a threat to ban BlackBerry services unless RIM gave it access to data transferred by its secured messaging system. This was resolved last week after the head of internal security in India said RIM agreed to address concerns over the possible use of its data services by terrorists.
According to the Financial Times, Google and Skype could face similar threats in the future. Minutes from an Indian government meeting obtained by the newspaper say:
“There was consensus that there [is] more than one type of service for which solutions are to be explored. Some of them are BlackBerry, Skype, Google etc,” the minutes read. “It was decided first to undertake the issue of BlackBerry and then the other services.”
It’s unlikely that the Indian government is interested in Google’s search business, but about 20 million Indians are active on Google’s social networking service, Orkut, which encourages them to communicate with each other over Google Talk.
Arranging lawful interception of peer-to-peer services like Skype and Google Talk will be more difficult than for BlackBerry. The latter at least goes through a single server, while VoIP communications such as Skype are genuinely peer-to-peer in that once a call has been established the communication is entirely decentralised.
Research in Motion (RIM) has responded to a report in India’s Economic Times reported saying the firm will allow Indian security authorities to monitor Blackberry services.
“We won’t compromise on the security architecture of our corporate e-mails,” said RIM’s India spokesman, Satchit Gayakwad.
“We respect the requirements of regulatory bodies in terms of security, but we also look at the customer’s need for privacy.”
The firm also denied it had ever provided anything unique to the government of one country that it had not offered to the governments of all countries.
RIM further said any access it granted governments and local carriers met four criteria – it was legal; the access granted to BlackBerry devices was no greater than that granted to other services; it did not change the security architecture for corporate BlackBerry customers; and it did not make country-specific deals.