Blackberry clampdown

2010-08-07 00:00

THE thought of no BlackBerry service is enough to strike paralytic terror into the thumbs of device users. Yet this week in Saudi Arabia, government has cut off the service because messages were undetectable to authorities.

The main attraction of BlackBerry phones is the easy use of their keyboards and functionality for messaging.

BlackBerry phones are made by Research in Motion (RIM), a company with server centres in Canada and Britain. RIM regulates and handles BlackBerry’s encrypted messages from behind its own protected firewall, which has been of concern to governments that cannot monitor message traffic.

Saudi Arabia is RIM’s biggest Middle East market with about 700 000 users. The Saudi government earlier this week said that the ban would take place yesterday, for reasons of national security. Saudi Arabia joins other countries that have executed a ban, including the United Arab Emirates, India and Kuwait.

Talks between RIM and the Saudi telecom regulator are in progress, but it is unclear at this stage how long the ban will last if the two sides are able to reach a compromise over the company’s encrypted network and the government’s concerns.

The BlackBerry shutdown has implications for businessmen and for efforts to lure Hollywood to the Middle East, specifically the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in mid-October and the Dubai International Film Festival in December.

Celebrities will be harder to entice if their BlackBerrys are rendered mute.

The row highlights a growing gulf between the idea of a free Internet and the desire by a growing number of authoritarian governments, from China to Iran, to control information and deepen surveillance as a means of tackling dissent and insurgency.

Indian security agencies are also demanding access to BlackBerry messages as a condition for further expansion, saying they suspect militants used the handsets to help plan the 2008 Mumbai attack in which 116 people died. Lebanon and Algeria are making similar demands.

“It is part of a wider trend,” said Jonathan Wood, global issues analyst at London-based consultancy Control Risks, which advises companies on security, corruption, politics and other issues.

“After 9/11, you had this huge expansion of Western powers monitoring electronic communications for national security. Other countries are now catching up. The difference is that they want to use it more broadly.”

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