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Banning the BlackBerry


Themes: Information systems and technology

Security concerns are the real issue surrounding the BlackBerry ban in Saudi Arabia and UAE

Jim Krane, long-time reporter for the Associated Press in the Persian Gulf region and author of recent book on Dubai City of Gold, who has just completed an MPhil in Technology Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School, says the showdown between BlackBerry, Saudi and UAE is likely to result in a compromise deal soon.

Mr Krane told Cambridge Judge Business School podcast series that security was the real issue Saudi Arabia had with the BlackBerry rather than the drive to clamp down on human rights activists:

“The UEA and Saudi Arabia don’t have electronic privacy. But the BlackBerry is different, the phone encrypts your conversations or your texts or your internet browsing signature and it’s sent on its own network back to its servers in Canada or the UK. There the information is decrypted and passed onto the end users so the government can’t access those conversations. It’s seen to represent a hole their security.

“The UAE is the Middle East’s business hub, especially Dubai, so for the government there that relies on international business to take on one of the main communication companies, is a fairly big deal. They wouldn’t do this if it was simply a matter of cracking down on internal dissent or human rights activists, of which there are few. In general there is not much anti-government sentiment there inside the country.”

Mr Krane says the UAE have tried to make it easy for tourists and business travellers to come and go, despite fears that smartphones could be used by militant extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda.

RIM (Research In Motion, the company behind the BlackBerry brand) has also been dealing with similar concerns over national security from Lebanon, India and Indonesia.

“The UAE is a wide open country, where visas are hardly requested, and a high percentage of the population is dominated by foreign residents. It is very reliant its tourism industry and on Dubai as an international business hub. They don’t want to use hard security such as flooding the streets with cops or guns, so soft surveillance, such as listening in to mobile communications is preferable, retaining its reputation as location where it is easy to come and go.

“The phone isn’t being banned, what is going to happen if this ban goes ahead, and I have my doubts that it will, is that the expensive BlackBerry phone will be rendered into a normal run-of-the-mill cellphone, that you make voice calls on, not emails and texts. It’s going to be terrible for business.”

Mr Krane said he thought a compromise deal between RIM and the UAE, including Saudi Arabia, would be reached soon.

“My suspicion is that this is a negotiating stance on behalf of the Saudi’s, and RIM is also taking a hard line on these negotiations, so I suspect that they will meet in the middle soon. Really what I think most of these countries want is to be able to subpoena conversations from RIM servers outside of the Middle East, when there is a specific investigation, such as the US and Britain do.”