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The militants used mobiles phones and other satellite gadgets to coordinate the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India. This attack left 166 people dead. Video enabled mobile phone captured the image of a woman dying of gunfire amidst the Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009.
The Muslim world’s two largest economies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are raising an alarm over the use of the latest, sophisticated mobile phone technologies. They have threatened to cut off the popular BlackBerry services unless RIM gives them greater access to data sent on the phones. Both these countries cite security concerns. India is also talking to RIM about how information is managed on BlackBerry devices. Lebanon and Algeria have also raised concerns about Research In Motion’s BlackBerry devices.
There are more than 700,000 BlackBerry subscribers in Saudi Arabia, and there are fears that this device could put the country’s security at risk. State owned Saudi Telecom banned text, web browsing, email and messenger functions on the BlackBerry as these communications are encrypted and cannot be monitored. They emphasize that these services will encourage criminal activities and terrorist communication over the mobile phones.
Research In Motion made BlackBerry handsets automatically encrypt communication and drive it to the computer server located in Canada. The Saudi Arabian government wants access to this encrypted information and keys to decrypt it. In reply, RIM informed them that their products are so designed that they prohibit RIM or any third party from reading encrypted information under any circumstances. And RIM does not store nor has any kind of access to the encrypted data. RIM further said it cannot accommodate any demand for a copy of the consumer’s encryption key as at no time has RIM or the network operators or any third party possessed a copy of the key.
Among the reported solutions to ward off the ban of BlackBerry services is setting up a local server that would be accessible to the authorities, instead of the data going directly to RIM’s server in Canada. The regulators in Saudi Arabia insist that they are seeking nothing more than what other countries have already negotiated with the company. RIM is already complying to the same regulatory requirements with the UK and US. So why are the Arab countries treated differently?
The BlackBerry secrecy issues have put RIM at the center of a worldwide debate over digital privacy and censorship. While RIM is familiar with the Western expectations of freedom and privacy, it’s experiencing difficulties in working with the governments that are threatened by the free flow of information. Winning new clientele in these developing nations means doing business with their governments.
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BlackBerry Security Concerns
The authorities of Saudi Arabia say that the BlackBerry devices operate outside their existing regulations while RIM confirms that its regulations co operate with all governments. Citing positive developments, the government of Saudi Arabia has allowed the BlackBerry services to continue for now. But it’s uncertain whether the reprieve is permanent.
RIM’s showdown in the Arab countries has also prompted other countries to review their BlackBerry services. India also seeks greater access to encrypted information from BlackBerry’s manufacturer RIM. The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and the upcoming Commonwealth games, an important sporting event, in October have prompted Indian authorities to resolve its security concerns.
Indian authorities have said that they are talking to the BlackBerry makers about the monitoring and interception of encrypted data via BlackBerry devices. If no consensus is reached, India will be forced to ban BlackBerry services from August 31st. India fears that such access can be abused.
Sources inform that Research In Motion has offered to share with the Indian security agencies its technical codes for corporate email services, open access to all user emails and also an assurance to develop tools that will allow chat monitoring.
Contrarily, BlackBerry supporters claim that modest mobile handsets present a greater security risk than the business elite BlackBerrys. Ajmal Kasab, the single survivor of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks told the Indian court that he and his companions used Nokia handsets. The anonymity and disposability of the prepaid mobiles and web based emails make them attractive to terrorists. Terrorists prefer to use the disposable mobile handsets and frequently change their phone numbers. Another hard to trace method is using email by updating and saving messages as drafts to evade interception.
The UAE, India and Saudi Arabia have more than two million BlackBerry users i.e. 5% of the total BlackBerry devices in service. If BlackBerry is unable to offer a solution to the security concerns of these nations, it is at high risk of losing almost 5% of its existing customers. And that could be good news for Apple and Nokia.