Cultural Interface :

Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Block Blackberry

Today, the United Arab Emirates announced that it will start blocking Blackberry email, messaging and web browsing features starting on October 11. Almost immediately following this announcement, Saudi Arabian telcos were ordered to begin blocking the messenger service of Blackberry later this month.

The UAE cited security concerns as the primary reason to take this action, as did the Saudis. Terrorism is everywhere and although it is a serious threat it is also the most convenient reason given by governments to pry into their citizens’ private communications.

The problem lies in the fact that the Blackberry service, provided by Research In Motion, encrypts users data that is then handled by servers outside the countries of origin, thus  preventing any kind of monitoring. The United Arab Emirates’ Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) stated, “Certain BlackBerry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns.” The UAE regulatory body said that BlackBerry devices operate outside of national security and safety laws that had been enacted in 2007, shortly after the service had been introduced into the UAE.

Curiously, the Apple iPhone and Nokia handsets are spared any interfering action as they do not automatically send their data to servers offshore, as the Blackberry does. The question remains, if the authorities are not interested in shutting their service providers down, is the use of these devices insecure with certain providers?

Based in Canada, Research in Motion, Blackberry’s manufacturer and service provider updates a user’s inbox by sending encrypted messages through company servers abroad, including users in Canada. Besides the addictive convenience of the Blackberry its security has made the device a business person’s must have favorite throughout the world.

If this action goes forward the impact will be substantial. It is estimated that over a million users would be affected. The device rapidly gained popularity in the Gulf States after its introduction and is an essential business tool. Also, the Blackberry is immensely popular among young men and women seeking a greater freedom from government oversight of web viewing and communication.

Regional residents will not be the only users affected, several hundred thousand foreign nationals live and work in the region as Dubai seeks to be a major business and financial center. Still not clear at this time is how this policy will affect the hundred thousand passengers who pass through Dubai’s airport, the busiest travel hub in the region. If the action goes forward it could further damage Dubai’s reputation among business as it recovers from its debt crisis.

As business expends its international reach and its employees are ever more mobile, increasing tension has been growing between service providers and sovereign states, as they try to provide the secure and consistent services, expected by their customers, wherever the user is at the time. On the other side of the issue are conservative, some would say authoritarian, governments seeking to maintain social order and an intractable enemy seeking their overthrow.

Google and China’s struggles are another example of users, culturural proclivities, government desires and service providers, with different goals, intersecting and coming into conflict. Other countries such as India and Bahrain, have also raised concerns about BlackBerry messaging, but have not threatened to blocked the service so far.

This is not the first time the UAE and Blackberry have been in conflict. In July of 2009, the UAE telecom firm Etisalat sent a message to their 145,000 customers suggesting they update to a new software they would provide, stating it would ‘improve performance’. It was later revealed that the update had not been developed, tested or authorized by Research in Motion. After downloading and installing the software users had some difficulty with operations of their Blackberry devices.

Research In Motion later released this statement, “Etisalat appears to have distributed a telecommunications surveillance application… independent sources have concluded that it is possible that the installed software could then enable unauthorized access to private or confidential information stored on the user’s smartphone” and “independent sources have concluded that the Etisalat update is not designed to improve performance of your BlackBerry Handheld, but rather to send received messages back to a central server”.

Originally published in the Swiss online newspaper,, reedited for WholeThinking.

  • email
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • FriendFeed
  • Reddit
  • Technorati
  • HackerNews
  • NewsVine
  • Google Buzz
  • viadeo FR
  • NuJIJ
  • LaTafanera
  • Wikio IT

, , , , , , , , , , ,