Monday, 23 August 2010

Too secure for its own good

The BlackBerry (BB) is under fire. Security issues have prompted countries around the world to consider taking measures that will limit the use of the smartphone.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced in early August that, as from 11 October, BB users in the UAE will no longer be able to check their email, browse the internet or use instant messaging services. Saudi-Arabia (SA) had announced to do the same, although it has, for now, withdrawn a ban. Indonesia said on 4 August it is considering following the UAE’s move and India has indicated it might do the same. On 11 August, the German Interior Minister revealed that the German IT security agency has advised German Government officials not to use the BB any longer.

The reasoning behind this is that BB data is encrypted and routed overseas, sent through servers in Canada, where the BB manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM) is based. Since users need a national telecom provider in their country to access the RIM server, the UAE has banned its national operators to offer BB online services. 

The BB is much more secure than other phones, since it makes messages far harder to monitor than those sent through domestic servers that authorities can tap into. So its excellent security features have actually become a security issue for a number of governments, for different reasons. The UAE wants a local BB server and data sharing deal so it can monitor its citizens’ messaging traffic, something RIM has – so far – refused. The German Government is uneasy about all its data passing through the RIM centre in Canada. India thinks terrorists use the BB because Indian security services cannot intercept the messages.

The matter has exposed the increasingly cross-border character of online technology. If the controller of a server or website does not wish to share its users’ data, governments hardly have any other possibilities than an outright ban.

RIM now faces the choice to switch to national servers, which governments can tap and which keep data in the home territory, or to hold on to its encrypted messaging server system through Canada, and potentially lose a lot of business.

If, for example, SA imposes a BB internet ban after all, it is expected millions of Saudis will switch to phones that do offer online services. As a result BB sales will drop and with more than 45 million BB users in SA alone, that is not something RIM is looking forward to.

Published in the August issue of E-Commerce Law & Policy Magazine. Copyrights apply.