News Analysis: The United Arab Emirates has reached agreement with Research In Motion to allow BlackBerry devices to continue operating in the Persian Gulf nation.
The hundreds of thousands of BlackBerry users in Dubai
can breathe a sigh of relief today, as the proposed ban on their smartphones
has been reversed. In a terse
press release issued Oct. 8
, the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory
Authority announced the agreement between the government and RIM.
The UAE is now the third country, after Saudi Arabia and
India, to come to terms with RIM following threats to ban the device because
their respective intelligence services were unable to crack RIM's encryption of
BlackBerry messages. Only Indonesia and Lebanon are still planning to limit the
use of the device or are still contemplating such a ban, according to a list of
countries that have attempted to ban the BlackBerry that was compiled by the Associated Press
and posted on the ABC News Web site.
However, law enforcement interests in the United States
have also expressed concern about RIM's security, worrying that Bad Guys might
be able to hide secret plans that the federal government would want to find out
about. So far, the U.S. government hasn't actually proposed banning the
BlackBerry, probably because doing so would effectively bring the U.S.
government and Washington, DC, in general, to an immediate halt. While this in
itself might sound like a bad thing, it'd be a hard sell in the BlackBerry
obsessed White House.
Still, it's enlightening to know that these countries
have so little trust in their own citizens. Rather than trust that
confidentiality really is needed by individuals and businesses daily, these
countries would rather worry that somebody, somewhere, is being naughty.
, they might have a point, given the number of terrorist
exports from the kingdom. But it's unlikely that BlackBerrys are really a
vehicle for terrorism, even in Saudi Arabia.
What's more likely is that religious extremists of one flavor or another in the
government are afraid of losing control, and they see RIM's uncrackable
encryption as a major part of that loss of control.
So, does the agreement between RIM and the UAE bring
things to an end? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it. In the case of India and
Saudi Arabia, RIM agreed to place servers in those countries so their
respective intelligence services would find it easier to monitor
communications. While neither RIM nor the UAE will discuss the details of the
agreement, it's a safe to say that a similar arrangement was put in place.
The next step for RIM will probably be in the U.S., where
federal law enforcement agencies appear to have seemingly unlimited access to
anything they want in the name of national security. I imagine a scenario like
this: An agency, say, the FBI and a group of that ilk, gets a friendly judge to
issue a warrant for messages being sent by an alleged Bad Guy. Then, that agency serves RIM with the
warrant and demands to be given the alleged Bad Guy's messages. RIM turns them
down, pointing out that the company doesn't have access.
As this imaginary scenario plays out, the judge finds RIM
in contempt and issues other orders. RIM, conveniently located in Canada,
ignores them, and restates its position that protecting customers' privacy is a
major part of the company's duty to its customers. Eventually, RIM expands the
server farms it already has in the U.S.-BlackBerrys used by the U.S. government
and many of its contractors use U.S.-based servers-and everybody's happy. Even
the Bad Guys are happy, because they've just started encrypting their emails
before they send them. Even if the government gets the messages, they still
can't read them.
There are a couple of assumptions here, the first being
that the government can't crack RIM's encryption. In reality, the National Security Agency
probably doesn't have
any trouble cracking RIM's encryption. That agency-especially after being
dragged by the Bush administration into performing domestic surveillance that
it opposed-sn't going to tell anyone that it can decrypt RIM's encryption.
Furthermore, we're assuming that RIM isn't already installing some of its
server cloud in the U.S. just for geographic diversity. For now, you'll still be able to use your BlackBerry
anywhere in the world where there's service. In the future, though, it's likely
that various governments around the world will admit to the failure of their
intelligence services to do their jobs and demand that RIM and other
communications companies do it for them. It's not exactly a dark outlook for
the future of mobile computing. Think of that as an alternative to dealing with
a growing level of annoyance if your business depends on both smartphones and