Ban on BlackBerry usage in the Middle East planned (updated)

3 Aug 2010

Visitors to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, who are using BlackBerry devices, may have to look for alternative smartphone models to communicate with family, colleagues and business partners back home if the ban is imposed on BlackBerry’s web services.

Governments of both countries have cited national security concerns as a reason for curtailing some BlackBerry services. The UAE plans to cut access to BlackBerry email, internet messaging and web browser services on October 11, 2010, while Saudi Arabia is suspending the use of the device’s messenger application from this Friday, August 6. The device, however, can still be used to make and receive voice calls.

The two countries have questioned the way BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) is managing and storing the electronic data transmitted over its network. BlackBerry messages are encrypted and are stored in servers located overseas. Both countries want RIM to give their government access to the encrypted messages.

In the UAE, the impending blackout on these BlackBerry services will not only affect the 500,000 local users, it will also be applied to all foreign travellers visiting the country. Even transit passengers in the busy Dubai airport – where an estimated 100,000 foreign travellers pass through daily – will have no access to emails and to the web in between flights.

BlackBerry has 46 million users worldwide in 175 countries and is a popular smartphone device for corporate communication.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) of the UAE said that Blackberry, in its current unfettered format, “allows users to act without any legal accountability causing judicial, social and national security concerns”.

TRA and Canada-based RIM are currently in discussion to find a resolution to the security and privacy issue to avert the ban.

“RIM does not disclose confidential regulatory discussions that take place with any government,” said the smartphone maker in a statement, adding that “RIM respects both the regulatory requirements of government and the security and privacy needs of corporations and consumers”.

The company issued an assurance that “it is committed to continue delivering highly secure and innovative products that satisfy the needs of both customers and governments”.

UAE-based telecoms service provider Etisalat already released replacement packages for Blackberry users, which only include SMS, MMS and voice calls. They are also offering alternative smart phones.

RIM faces mounting global pressure from governments to allow monitoring of electronic data that are being transmitted via its network, particularly in Asia and in the Middle East where the company is rapidly gaining a lot of BlackBerry users.

Local media reports in India have claimed that RIM and the India government last week reached a compromise solution, allowing local security agencies to track corporate emails without sharing encryption details. The security agencies slammed the concession saying that they do not believe RIM do not have a master key that allow them to intercept data traffic from BlackBerry devices in a readable format.

However, RIM said in its latest statement that no concession has been made.

“We respect the requirements of regulatory bodies in terms of security, but we also look at the customer’s need for privacy,” the company said, adding that “any claims that we provide, or have ever provided, something unique to the government of one country that we have not offered to the governments of all countries, are unfounded”.

It stressed that “RIM cooperates with all governments with a consistent standard and the same degree of respect.”

The smartphone maker explained the BlackBerry’s security system is designed specifically the keep third parties and RIM itself from reading encrypted information being sent via its network.

“RIM cannot accommodate any request for a copy of a customer’s encryption key, since at no time does RIM, or any wireless network operator or any third party, ever possess a copy of the key,” the company said. “This means that customers of the BlackBerry enterprise solution can maintain confidence in the integrity of the security architecture without fear of compromise.”

Alisha Haridasani and Gigi Onag

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