Different strokes for different folks

Different strokes for different strokes seems to have been the mantra for Research In Motion, manufacturers of the ubiquitous Blackberry devices that everyone from workaholics to social media junkies tot around.

By Hisham Wyne (AT HOME)

Published: Sat 14 Aug 2010, 10:01 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:09 AM

For a while it released statements assuring all and sundry that no government gets preferential treatment, yet details are emerging of deals struck with the UK, US, India, Saudi Arabia and possibly China and Russia to provide monitoring and data interception services. Now, the UAE wants in.

Two weeks prior, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority announced the Blackberry’s encrypted messenger and email services were unwelcome, for they posed security dilemmas as well as socio-cultural ones. A complete ban is expected on October 11th 2010, though the TRA insists it is still negotiating with RIM on a solution. Saudi Arabia has since jumped on the bandwagon, though a ban supposed to go into effect on August 6th was averted, presumably due to a deal between RIM and the Saudi government.

The security issues are not clear, though they could be hypothesised. The socio-cultural ones are readily apparent. The Blackberry Messenger service has become a platform for choice for disseminating information, often unverified, and exchanging sweet nothings with the opposite gender. A key issue is lack of traceability. UAE telecos are not privy to the information sent from Blackberries, and unique pins that blackberry holders use to identify themselves on the messenger are often difficult to trace back to real users.

Writing for Foreign Policy, Emirati commentator Sultan Al Qassemi notes the Blackberry messenger operates as a de facto rumour mill churning out light hearted jokes as well as perhaps more serious allegations of misbehaviour against government officials. He notes that this can in part be attributed to possible shortcomings in the fourth estate of journalism to hold society and government to account. The Blackberry information highway has turned into a veritable fifth estate; one with little control and no easy way of information verification. Were Blackberry services to be etiolated, this fifth estate may move to other means of communication.

RIM’s chosen course of action leans towards obfuscation. The company released a stonewalling official statement saying:“RIM cooperates with all governments with a consistent standard and the same degree of respect. 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. The BlackBerry enterprise solution was designed to preclude RIM, or any third party, from reading encrypted information under any circumstances since RIM does not store or have access to the encrypted data.” “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.”

This is masterful deflection, because RIM’s enterprise solutions are not the crux of the matter. The fly in the ointment is the independent consumer who uses RIM services through Etisalat and du. RIM remains tight-lipped on how secure these communications are from legal eavesdropping. But Danish Farhan, CEO of Dubai-based hybrid consultancy Xiche, deems interception to be highly possible: RIM would be required to set up a proxy server within the UAE that stores transmitted data either before encryption or after decryption. International security experts have pointed out that the handsets themselves could be the weakest link for interception software – local telco Etisalat last year made an abortive attempt to install spyware on customers’ Blackberries.

Were a deal to be struck where the UAE government could monitor Blackberry data, a new area of jurisprudential grey would open up. Countries like the US and UK have clear procedures for requesting access to data, including subpoenas and court orders. The TRA data policy is silent on the issue, merely expansively noting that encryption is illegal. Once the UAE gains monitoring capacity, it would be well worth the TRA’s time to point out, in the interests of transparency, how and when this would be utilised. In the meantime, RIM, with a reputation built on security and unwillingness to compromise, is being buffeted by the winds of change and suspicion. Nor is its equivocation is not helping consumer confidence any.

Hisham Wyne is a columnist, radio commentator and copywriter

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