It has not been a good week for Blackberry users in the Middle East.
First came the news that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would ban the devices in October, then Saudi Arabia announced it would block the Blackberry instant messenger function from Friday.
Days later, Lebanon said it would be conducting its own review into use of the devices, whose encrypted data transfer services have raised fears they could be used for crime, terrorism or even espionage.
The governments in question want access to the data sent and received by Blackberry users, which is currently stored beyond the reach of authorities on the servers of Research in Motion (RIM), Blackberry’s operator, in Canada.
RIM have refused to hand over the data, and so authorities have decided to ban Blackberry services rather than continue to allow an uncontrolled and unmonitored flow of electronic information within their borders.
The UAE issued a statement explaining the decision, saying it had come because “certain Blackberry services” allow users to avoid “any legal accountability”, raising “judicial, social and national security concerns”.
The impending bans have been met with understandable anger from Blackberry users, who have accused the authorities of censorship and seeking to spy on their private information.
But is it really that surprising that governments in the region want access to their citizens’ communications?
Exception to the rule
Many countries monitor communications within their borders; in fact the Blackberry ‘loophole’ is very much an exception to the rule. In some countries every text message, email and internet search made by a user can be accessed by government agencies if required.
Experts point out that countries in the Middle East are not alone in seeking access to Blackberry’s data, and say that other governments appear to have been allowed to monitor Blackberry communications in a bid to secure access to lucrative markets.
“It seems that the number of large countries, particularly China and India, have been able to persuade Research in Motion to give those countries the full ability to look at traffic flowing through their Blackberry networks, whereas smaller countries, like the UAE, it seems they are not willing to give that capability to,” Ian Brown, a senior fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, says.
“There are certainly countries all round the world, including the US and the UK, where governments have said that they want this sort of interception capability.”
So is this a simple case of corporate double standards driven by the size of market at stake? Maybe not, data security experts say, pointing out that the US and the UK have laws dictating exactly how communications data can be used by governments.
In contrast, Middle Eastern countries do not have the same privacy protections, and experts say that this, not the fact that governments have access to it first place, is the real cause for concern.
“If you look at the UK there are various safeguards in place, such as judicial overview. The concern that people have is how secure is their data going to be in the UAE?” Nigel Stanley, an IT security expert, says.
Spyware text message
Thomas Shambler, the Dubai-based editor of the Middle East edition of Stuff magazine, said that misgivings were not surprising given the history of state-backed telecommunications surveillance in the region.
“Last year Etislat [a national mobile-service provider in the UAE] sent out a text message to lots of its users,” he says.”That text message led users to download spyware.”
Days after the text message, which promised to improve service but actually contained eavesdropping software, was sent to UAE Blackberry users, RIM issued a patch to remove the spyware, effectively thwarting the first attempt to monitor Blackberry communications in the Emirates.
But are Blackberry users really worried if their data is made available for scrutiny?
Shambler says that Dubai’s estimated 500,000 Blackberry customers are more concerned about losing access to their services than they are about being spied on by the government.
“People here aren’t so much angry about the UAE looking at private data,” he says.
“They are more worried about how they are going to send emails, how they are going to private message people, how they are going to stay in touch with work when they are out and about.”
Others warn that shrugging off surveillance in this way is a dangerous approach.
“Some people’s attitude is nothing to hide, nothing to fear. But the reality is if governments want to get their data, then they will do,” Stanley says.
With technology advancing faster than governments can keep up, he predicts that effective surveillance will become less feasible for states to conduct in the future.
“It’s very difficult for governments to win in the long run against these sort of technologies,” he says.
Looking at figures showing the growth of electronic data in recent years, it is not difficult to follow his logic. An estimated 2.8 million emails are now sent every second; eventually, experts say, governments will simply not be able to track the tidal wave of information flowing around the world.
But that will be scant comfort for Blackberry users in the region. Unless a compromise can be found, they are about to find out first-hand just how far governments will go to keep a grip on telecommunications in a rapidly changing world.
The Canadian maker of Blackberry phones has reportedly struck a deal with the Saudi authorities to avert a threatened ban on its messaging service.
The Associated Press news agency quoted a Saudi official as saying that the Canada-based Research in Motion (RIM) would under the deal allow the Saudi government access to its encrypted data.
Telecom authorities in Saudi Arabia had earlier threatened to block Blackberry messaging service in the kingdom from Friday, saying the service ”in its present state does not meet regulatory requirements”.
It had ordered the kingdom’s three mobile phone providers on Tuesday to block the service by August 6 or face a $1.3m fine.
Saturday’s reported deal comes after week-long negotiations with RIM in a bid to have the device conform to Saudi laws.
Saudi Arabia is RIM’s biggest Middle East market with about 700,000 users.