Some Blackberry Services In UAE and Saudi Arabia To Be Cut Unless Government Surveillance Allowed

According to various news reports like this one in the New York Times, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) along with Saudi Arabia, citing national security concerns, indicated yesterday that they would be suspending Ontario, Canada-based Research In Motion's (RIM) Blackberry mobile services including its email, Messenger and Web-browsing services beginning the 11th of October unless the governments can gain access to them. Other governments, including Bahrain, China, India and Kuwait have been pressing RIM for easier access to user account information as well.

The Wall Street Journal says that:

"RIM, which has about 46 million subscribers world-wide, is unusual among cell phone makers in that BlackBerrys, which were initially designed for corporate users, come with a high level of security built in. The messages are encrypted on the device before being sent and remain encrypted until they reach their destination. The messages are processed at one of RIM's Network Operations Centers, the principal one of which is in Canada. The NOCs use proprietary technology, making it difficult for outsiders to hack in."

Thus, the Journal says, the UAE worries that "... its courts couldn't compel RIM to turn over secure data from its servers..." even in the face of pressing national security concerns.

Other smart phones don't provide a similar secure environment, so their electronic traffic can more easily be monitored.

The UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said in its announcement yesterday :

"The suspension is a result of the failure of ongoing attempts, dating back to 2007, to bring Blackberry services in the UAE in line with UAE telecommunications regulations....

"All Blackberry services fall within the UAE regulatory framework developed by the TRA since 2007, however because of Blackberry’s technical configuration, some Blackberry services operate beyond the enforcement these regulations."

"Blackberry data is immediately exported off-shore, where it is managed by a foreign, commercial organization. Blackberry data services are currently the only data services operating in the UAE where this is the case."

"Today’s decision 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 for the UAE."

An AP news report today says the ban will affect visitors, too. The AP report says that this means passengers passing through Dubai International Airport will be hit. This raises the stakes a bit.

About a year ago, the UAE telecom carrier Etisalat sent out a Blackberry "upgrade" to its 145,000 Blackberry customers which RIM soon after said was nothing more than spyware meant to send received messages back to a central server. RIM offered its customers a way to remove the upgrade if they wished.

This action did not endear RIM to the UAE government. Etisalat's announcement of the new Blackberry restrictions can be found here.

The Journal says that RIM has released no comments about the suspension so far, and none appear on its web site as of now. However, this article in the Financial Times of London is betting that the issue will be quietly settled. This Forbes blog post bets the same way.

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