Blackberry face growing pressure in the Gulf and India over encryption code

The United Arab Emirates’ Telecommunications Regulation Authority (TRA) and The Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) announced, respectively on August 1st 2010 and on August 5th, 2010, that they will block some functions of the Blackberry due to non-compliance with the regulatory requirements in both countries.

And while the UAE will cut off some BlackBerry services such as BlackBerry Messenger, BlackBerry E-mail and BlackBerry Web-browsing as of October 11, 2010, Saudi Arabia had ordered the kingdom's three mobile phone providers, Etihad Etisalat-Mobily, Saudi Telecom Company (STC) and Zain Saudi Arabia, to block all BlackBerry's services, including e-mail and instant messaging, starting from tomorrow, Friday, August 6th, 2010.

This ban, which according to both countries, will remain in place until BlackBerry applications are in full compliance with local regulations, will seemingly affect more that 500,000 BlackBerry users in the UAE and 700,000 users in Saudi Arabia.

The main reason of the ban seems to lie in the way BlackBerrys handle data and in the judicial and security concerns of the encrypted communications sent to computer servers outside of the two countries. Since BlackBerry’s Messages are sent in an encrypted format through BlackBerry’s servers in Canada, which are run by the manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM), both Gulf states regulatory bodies are upset that they are unable to monitor the data traffic on BlackBerry's handsets.

The UAE’s Telecommunications Regulation Authority says that “in their current form, certain BlackBerry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns.”

However, and as explained by CPJ Advocacy Coordinator Danny O'Brien:

With suitable technical investment in domestic Internet monitoring, the UAE can decode a great deal of BlackBerry traffic without RIM’s help. When it comes to secure, encrypted communications, neither RIM nor any other telecommunication provider will be able to help them beat the encryption and spy on their own journalists or readers. The power lies far less in the hands of RIM, and far more in the hands of savvy Net users’ choice of the right tools.

According to Dr. Christopher M. Davidson, a Gulf specialist and author of “Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success“, the United Arab Emirates’ ban on BlackBerry email and messenger is “primarily a response to mounting political opposition“:

It is also a stark reminder of the current regime’s disingenuous attitudes, its invasive censorship practises, and its intensifying control over the flow of information between the country’s citizens, its millions of expat residents, and all of their contacts with the outside world. Unlike other smartphones, such as Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone, data transferred using BlackBerrys has proved difficult to intercept and monitor for third parties, including the UAE’s state security services and other ill-intentioned eavesdroppers.

This interpretation seems to be confirmed by the recent arrest of several BlackBerry users in the United Arab Emirates for allegedly trying “to organise a protest against an increase in the price of gasoline” using Blackberry messages:

BBM user Badr Ali Saiwad Al Dhohori, an 18-year-old resident of Ras Al Khaimah, has reportedly been held in Abu Dhabi since 15 July. The authorities were able to trace the organiser, known as “Saud,” because he included his BlackBerry PIN in a BBM message he sent calling for the protest. They held Saud for a week and interrogated him to trace those he had been messaging. Accused of inciting opposition to the government, he has lost his job. At least five other members of the group have reportedly been summoned by the police or are still being sought.

In the main time, the pressures from government authorities worldwide on Blackberry maker, the Canadian Research In Motion, are growing for access to Balckberry data. In an attempt to prevent an outright ban in India, RIM has recently agreed to allow Indian security agencies to monitor its BlackBerry services:

The company has offered to share with security agencies its technical codes for corporate email services, open up access to all consumer emails within 15 days and also develop tools in 6 to 8 months to allow monitoring of chats

In Kuwait, at the request of Kuwait's communication ministry, RIM has reportedly agreed to block 3000 pornographic websites by the end of the year, and is working with Kuwait on “legal controls that would guarantee national security on the one hand, and the rights of citizens…to use the device's services on the other.”

In Bahrain, the widely used BlackBerry chat groups have been banned since April 2010 over the “chaos and confusion” that would result from sharing and distributing local news through these groups.

Back in 2007, RIM has reportedly provided its encryption keys to the Russian Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) “which, in turn, provided access to the Federal Security Service (FSB)“.

Update 1 (August 5th 2010): Indonesia is considering banning BlackBerry services. Gatot Dewabroto, spokesman for the Ministry of Communication and Information declared: “We don’t know whether data being sent through BlackBerrys can be intercepted or read by third parties outside the country.”

Update 2 (August 6th 2010): It has been reported that the Algerian government is reviewing the use of BlackBerry. “We are looking at the issue. If we find out that it is a danger for our economy and our security, we will stop it,” the Telecommunications Minister Moussa Benhamadi said.

Update 3 (August 6th 2010): Lebanon is considering to assess security concerns relating to the use of BlackBerry in the country. “We are studying the issue from all sides — technical, service-wise, economic, financial, legal and security-wise,” the acting head of the Telecoms Regulatory Authority told Reuters. “We are discussing this with the concerned administrations and ministries.

Update 4 (August 6th 2010): Yestrday, August 5th, 2010, the Tunisian mobile operator, Tunisiana, announced that it will suspend the email function of the Blackberry phones for three days citing concerns about security risks.

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