August 2, 2010

The UAE has decided to suspend Blackberry service in their country:

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has said that BlackBerry Messenger, BlackBerry E-mail and BlackBerry Web-browsing services in the UAE will be suspended as of October 11.

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.

To coincide with the announcement, the UAE's state news agency WAM has produced a detailed comparison of telecommunications regulation in the UAE, UK and US.

Both telecommunications operators, Etisalat and du,were informed of the decision earlier today. The notification was delivered with an instruction to ensure minimal consumer disruption in the provision of alternative services.

Initially, I glanced over the story and didn't think much about it. But then I saw this article at Ars Technica and realized there is more than meets the eye:

(O)ne of the selling points of the Blackberry—strong encryption between the hardware and RIM's e-mail servers in Canada—hasn't sat well with the UAE's security services. After previous attempts to subvert the encryption, the UAE has now decided to simply ban sales of the devices. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia is considering blocking the use of RIM's instant messaging service.

The problem, from the security service's perspective, is that the e-mails never spend any time where the UAE's security services can examine their contents. In what appeared to be an earlier attempt to get around this issue, Etisalat attempted to get RIM users on its network to install some software that simply took any e-mail that had been decrypted and forwarded it on to a server within the UAE. This effort was quickly discovered, however, and RIM washed its hands of the whole thing publicly.

Now, the UAE has apparently decided that if you can't subvert them, you might as well kill them. As of October, RIM devices will be cut off from Internet access when using carriers based in the UAE. The security services would apparently accept the company setting up a local proxy server for monitoring, but the user population is small enough that RIM may be comfortable walking away from that market instead. But there are some signs that the UAE isn't alone in this. A BBC report on the same topic mentioned that some Blackberry services would be banned by Saudi Arabia; both mentioned India being concerned with its inability to monitor traffic from the devices.

So because the UAE could not install spyware on the cellphones as they had hoped, they simply banned the phones. The plot thickens. It should also be assumed that other phones available at UAE have not had this problem. But that wasn't the only thing that struck me. I remember a conversation I had with some other bloggers at the time that when Obama was stubbornly refusing to give up his BlackBerry and I remembered the acronym RIM. I did a quick search through my inbox and found this link:

On February 9, 2006, the US Department of Defense (DOD) filed a brief stating that an injunction shutting down the BlackBerry service while excluding government users was unworkable. The DOD also stated that the BlackBerry was crucial for national security given the large number of government users.

National security? Encrypted spyware? We know that telecom companies acceded to demands by the Bush/Cheney administration to wiretap Americans land lines without a warrant. Could RIM have made a similar agreement with the DOD, but not with the government of UAE? After all, when he was elected in 2007, Sarkozy banned the use of BlackBerrys for his cabinet for security reasons, citing the fact that the servers reside in the UK and US.

Défense Nationale (SGDN), the French security agency, says the BlackBerry is "a problem of data security." The French Cabinet and staffs have been barred from using the popular handheld.

The Financial Times says the French foreign service got rid of its BlackBerries some time ago, but that other ministries had ignored guidance and were still using them.

French paper Le Monde reportedly was quite explicit regarding who might be seeking to spy on the secrets of France, pointing the finger firmly at the USA's National Security Agency interception spookshop. There was no mention of the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6) or Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), but one can be sure they too have figured in the SGDN's decision.

Obviously, it's virtually impossible to confirm anything when we start getting into the arena of spyware and foreign governments, but I'd say there's enough fragments there to say that this is not simply a case of the UAE not finding the Blackberry technology up to its standards.

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