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What's behind the Saudi and UAE move to ban Blackberry?

Saudi Arabia has announced that it will join the UAE and ban use of Blackberry data and messaging services. Both countries claim the move is due to security fears, but the ban highlights the tension between digital security and privacy.


Walk down the street of any major international business centre and the signs of Blackberry’s popularity are everywhere.

Hurried business executives furiously type on its tiny keyboard while others pass by with the device attached to their belt, and its distinctive “bzzz bzzzzz” vibrating sound seem to permanently hover in the air. 

Few of these users rely on Blackberry for entertainment or think it makes a fashion statement, such as Apple’s hugely popular iPhone. Instead, Blackberry users regard is as a vital utility device elegantly designed to send and receive secure email and other text messages. The combination of its simplicity (it is one of the few gadgets with a real keyboard after all) and the security that comes with encrypted communications underlie the foundation of Blackberry’s popularity. Now it appears, that success may also become the company’s biggest liability.

Open vs closed networks

Two of the Persian Gulf's largest and most technically advanced economies have announced bans on use of the device, citing security concerns.  The United Arab Emirates announced on Sunday that, as of October, use of the Blackberry’s data services in the country will no longer be permitted. Its half a million domestic customers in the UAE will have to find other devices to send and receive messages, while visitors to the Emirates will also be blocked from accessing their messaging services. 
Saudi Arabia, too, said that from August 6, it will no longer permit use of the device, citing that the company did not meet the Kingdom's regulatory requirements.
The central issue for the Emirates and the Saudis, along with a growing list of other countries, rests in the high level of security encryption that protects the data flowing across Blackberry’s network. 
Unlike other email providers like Yahoo! Mail or Microsoft’s Hotmail, Blackberry does not use the open internet to transmit email or text messages from one point to another. Instead, when a Blackberry user sends a message, the data travels over a closed global network operated by the device’s manufacturer, Research in Motion (RIM).
While that closed network is reassuring for users who want their privacy protected, it is also a major source of frustration for governments, such as the UAE, who cannot monitor RIM’s network as they can for other devices.
The national security debate

Blackberry Around the World

UAE: Suspension of BBM, web and email from October 11, 2010, according to TRA.

India: Threat of suspension; in talks with RIM.

Pakistan: Temporarily blocked along with Facebook and Twitter after controversial cartoons released.

China: Reports of RIM hosting a server in the country.

Kuwait: Threat of suspension because BBM used to "spread rumours"

Saudi Arabia: Apparently asked RIM for permission to intercept messages

Bahrain: First legal action against BBM users

UAE officials contend that the decision to restrict the use of the Blackberry is motivated by the need to protect national security. If the Emirates security services, according to their argument, are unable to monitor encrypted emails and messages sent by terrorists using Blackberries, then that poses a genuine threat to the UAE’s national security. 

One example that has been commonly used to highlight this issue was the January 2010 assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai allegedly by Israeli agents. The fact that the killing occurred in Dubai and without detection by the UAE's security services came as a real shock for the government in Abu Dhabi. In fact, the incident so infuriated UAE officials that it is widely credited with prompting the current drive for increased electronic surveillance and security.   

Not all governments, though, support India and the UAE’s move to tighten information monitoring policies. "The UAE has reasons to be concerned about how information can be used by those who wish to attack the UAE or others. But restricting technologies in the 21st century, we think, is a move in the wrong direction," said United States Department of State spokesman PJ Crowley.  
Additionally, international media rights organisations, such as Reporters Without Borders, deplored the UAE’s Blackberry ban asserting that it will limit freedom of expression in the Emirates. There are also growing concerns that the UAE ban on Blackberry could negatively impact the country’s tourism industry, especially among the 100,000 visitors who pass through Dubai’s airport each day.
Who’s next?
While many governments are focusing their attention on Blackberry’s encrypted messaging service, it is by no means the only platform that offers secure online communication. Google’s Gmail service now encrypts emails that pass through its servers as well. Although the encryption used on Gmail is not as extensive as that employed by Blackberry, it does highlight the consumer demand that tech companies are responding to for enhanced internet privacy controls. So far there is no indication that the Emirates has any plans to follow China’s lead in directly confronting Google, but it may be that Blackberry is the UAE’s opening shot in this new digital showdown.


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