BlackBerry phones are different from other mobile handsets because RIM, the manufacturer of these phones, provides, in addition to the hardware, a special service infrastructure that allows users to share instant messages and e-mails easily through a very secure platform. This high level of security, along with the ease with which messages can be composed on BlackBerry devices, has made BlackBerry very popular in the business world.
However, this same popularity of BlackBerry devices, and the high level of security they provide, has recently stirred up many issues of national security in a number of neighbouring countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and even India, as even network operators are not able to intercept the messages exchanged by BlackBerry devices. This is especially because governments worry that terrorists may take advantage of these secure communication methods to plan their activities.
Communication is protected in the majority of countries around the world, and network operators are not allowed to eavesdrop on the communications of their users, but courts in any country would be entitled under certain conditions to make an order to intercept communications of some individuals on various grounds such as national security.
The problem with BlackBerry devices is that the messages of their consumers are routed through the servers of the company in Canada, and any court order in the UAE or in Saudi would not directly have an effect in Canada, due to legal jurisdiction issues.
It is not exactly clear what governments such as those in the UAE and Saudi want. RIM offers a number of services, one of which is the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, used by companies and governments to communicate using a high level of security, which RIM itself cannot decrypt as the data would go through the servers of each company that subscribes to the service.
The other service more commonly used by consumers is the BlackBerry Internet Server, which provides a lower level of security that RIM is able to decrypt if asked to do so.
The governments of the UAE and Saudi are in talks with RIM, and they seem to have requested local servers for users registered in each country. This would ensure that if a court of law orders the communication to be intercepted, the order can be fulfilled.It is still unknown whether an agreement has been reached, as no official statement regarding the recent status of the ban has been made.
Looking at the issue from the perspective of national security, it is reasonable for any country to seek to have that level of insurance available in the case of an emergency. However, the truth is that BlackBerry is only one of the many available methods of communication which cannot be intercepted by local service providers. E-mail, instant messaging and all sorts of other web-based communication are encrypted and routed through servers located all over the world.
It would be unrealistic to ban every single method of secure communication or to ask every company to establish servers for local users in every country, especially as it might not be commercially viable for international businesses to establish local servers in small markets such as ours. The solution to this problem is not an easy one. Regulators should assess the impact strict regulation could have on innovations that could be built on these communication methods and must consider the benefits these communication methods provide to small businesses and society at large.
This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.