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BlackBerry Bother

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.

Categories
Censorship Privacy

Private Use of VPN to be Prohibited in Oman

The Telecom Regulation Authority (TRA) has recently published a draft regulation on the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) (Arabic text) in Oman. The TRA is seeking public opinion on the matter before passing this regulation as law. The short summary of this regulation is that the use of VPN by individuals will be illegal, a fine of RO 500 will be charged for personal use and RO 1000 for commercial use.

The use VPN specifically wasn’t regulated before, but it could be argued that it’s use has always been illegal as a form of unlicensed encrypted communication. This new regulation makes it clearly an offense to use VPN at home, and allows it only to private and public institution who have to apply for TRA’s approval before using VPN, the TRA also retains to right to object to any grant this approval without provide reasons for this objection.

It it easy to understand why the TRA is prohibiting the use of VPNs as their primary use in this country is to bypass ISP censorship and the prohibition of the use of VOIP. A few also use VPN service to fake their IP location in order to use services offered in a region only (e.g. Hulu).

However, there are companies and institutions that rely on VPN services to conduct their business as security measures and communications with their international partners require the security of VPN network, for this specific purpose the use of VPN by companies will be allowed upon registration with the TRA.

I think there is a small case to argue that the use of VPN is necessary for individuals who study on long-distance programs as some universities offer access to their subscription based educational resources (e.g. Lexis Nexus and Westlaw) and blackboard through university VPN. When I was doing my masters at Southampton university I couldn’t access the university’s VPN when I was in Oman.

According to Article 1 of the regulation VPN is defined as follows: “a private information network  for private use made through the use of connections with a public communications network.”

It should be noted that this definition of VPN is wide and could catch uses which have nothing to do with bypassing the regulation, for example, you cannot establish a VPN to connect to your computer wirelessly through your mobile phone in order to share files between your computer and your phone. It might also cover networks created for multiplayer gaming.

Though a big worry for users of VPN, there isn’t much that can be done about this regulation as it seems to be in accordance with the telecom law and the general censorship policy in the country.

If you have any suggestions to make to the TRA on how this regulation should be amended you can send them an email at fpconsulting@tra.gov.om by the 20th of September 2010.

Categories
Privacy

Living in Public

Long ago people used to live in small villages where every member of the village used to know everything about everybody else even when they were not close – each had a role to play in such a small community and the availability of information was vital to the survival of the village. As society grew bigger and more complex, it became impossible to learn about what everyone else was doing and as our societal roles became more encapsulated there was no need for us to have that knowledge anyway. Consequently, we developed this sense of individuality and privacy which now makes us feel fundamentally entitled to be left alone.

Fast-forward into a world dominated by social networks and services that allow you to stream every aspect of your life (with geotagging if you really wanted to). Suddenly everybody knows everything about everyone else just like the old days of the village. Many of us belong to new communities and tribes, not ones based on race or ethnic groups, but ones which are based on the shared interests and thoughts of its members regardless of age, sex, or nationality. We are no longer limited by our physical location or the group of people around us, we can be connected to the rest of the world if we are willing to engage with it.

It is not true that social networks and popular methods of electronic communication are leading to the demise of the human touch in our lives, but on the contrary, it is helping enhance the way many of us communicate face-to-face with each other as we can easily understand each other through the information we share through these networks.

Not every one of us is an artist or a novelist, so these random, mundane, and intimate status updates we make could be our method to express ourselves. It might not be the most elegant or sophisticated, but it is our only way to fulfil our need for expressing what we think. It is true that we might also do it to seek validation of what the actions we take on a daily basis, or to feel connected to someone, or anyone when we are alone – but none of that changes to the fact that it speaks to many of our basic human needs.

Privacy is not dead, but the sphere of what we consider “public” life is expanding to unprecedented levels both in amount and reach. We have to be careful not to out those who are not ready to participate in this new community and we must be careful not to breach our professional obligations to keep information confidential, but we also must realise that we are potential public figures as we become spokespersons for our countries, employers, and families on this new reality where everyone lives in public.