RIM Wins Another Round in BlackBerry Encryption Ban Talks

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.

In Saudi Arabia's case, 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 privacy.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...