The past few weeks have been particularly difficult for smartphone giant Research In Motion (RIM). Since India made demands that the Canadian company establish BlackBerry servers on Indian soil, which its security services can monitor, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and even Indonesia have jumped on the bandwagon.
The general consensus among the countries is that BlackBerry’s method of storing and transmitting encrypted data to its servers outside of the respective countries poses a threat to their “national security” and “sovereignty.”
India originally raised its concerns over BlackBerry services in 2008, when it asked RIM to allow Indian intelligence agencies access to encrypted text messages. RIM’s response then, as it is now, was that it does not allow any third-party or even its own employees to access the data sent over the network.
In the same year, at least 173 people were killed in Mumbai after gunmen rampaged across the city. Five BlackBerry phones recovered and examined by Indian officials revealed the terrorists might have used the handsets to monitor media reaction to the attacks.
While that alone is not incriminating evidence to single out BlackBerry as a threat to national security, since any other Internet-enabled device could have been used for the same purpose, it would make sense those intent on avoiding pervasive monitoring by security services would be more inclined to use BlackBerry services.
The US is able to monitor phone calls and wireless data under its Patriot Act, which was enacted after 9/11. If US intelligence can gain access to BlackBerry data for its own security, then shouldn’t India be entitled to the same rights under its own laws and regulations?
Indian authorities are particularly peeved that neighboring China may have its own BlackBerry servers in the country. It is also rumoured RIM may have struck a deal with Russia in 2008 as BlackBerry devices were previously prohibited from sales in the country. Although RIM maintains it does not treat any country more favourably than the other.
It said in a statement: "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."
While India is playing a more diplomatic role to try and have the situation resolved amicably, the UAE and Saudi governments have taken a harsher stance.
Last week, UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) set a deadline in October 11th for RIM to either comply with its requests or face the banhammer.
Mohammed al-Ghanim, director-general of TRA, said: "We are not asking for RIM to do anything that is not apparently being done in developed nations or so-called open countries around the world.”
UAE was previously involved in a BlackBerry fiasco last year, when the country’s biggest state-run operator was caught trying to install spyware on BlackBerry devices in an attempt to transmit data to a central server.
Despite the incident, the Gulf state might not be bluffing about its security concerns.
Earlier this year, suspected Israeli spies assassinated a leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas in a Dubai hotel, which caused an international uproar. UAE, which is considered an ally of the west, is also likely to want to monitor trade with the rogue state Iran.
Following UAE’s ban threat, Saudi Arabia, the largest economy in the Gulf, too, ordered the country’s three network providers to block BlackBerry services once the six-month “grace period” it had reportedly been granted in May expires.
However, Saudi Arabia’s decision is more likely to be motivated by the popularity of BlackBerry devices amongst Saudi teenagers, which may not be going down too well for the kingdom’s ultra-conservative government.
Meanwhile, RIM CEO Michael Lazaridis has hit back at the governments for the ban threats.
He said: "This is about the Internet
"Everything on the Internet is encrypted. This is not a BlackBerry-only issue. If they can't deal with the Internet, they should shut it off."
RIM’s frustration is understandable. It is in a precarious position of either getting banned and losing its customers in these emerging markets, or risk compromising one of the key features that made it so popular with business and corporate users worldwide in the first place.
Now as much as I love privacy and all that good stuff and know that government monitoring can often be a recipe for abuse, I think it is ultimately RIM that bears responsibility to follow the rules of the countries in which it chooses to do business. By lashing out at governments, Michael Lazaridis isn’t doing his company any favours.
And it would appear playing hardball might have finally brought RIM’s resistance to an end. Saudi Arabia reportedly agreed to delay the ban to allow the testing of three servers being set up in the country, which would serve as a gateway to allow Saudi authorities monitor BlackBerry data being transmitted in and out of the country.
If the testing is successful, India and UAE will most likely follow suit.
While the outcome may be considered a defeat for privacy advocates, it is unfortunately the best RIM could hope for given the circumstances.
By letting government authorities monitor BlackBerry servers under their own jurisdiction, the smartphone maker can at least continue to operate in the region and may be finally put this boring saga to rest.
If you agree or disagree with the decision, let us know in the comments section below.