- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2010

Planning to take your faithful BlackBerry along on a trip to the United Arab Emirates? Think again.

The showdown between the Middle Eastern nation and the makers of the popular electronic devices escalated Monday, with Research in Motion (RIM) assuring its customers that it would not alter its security methods, while the United Arab Emirates said its BlackBerry ban, though it won’t cover phone calls, also will apply to Americans and other foreign visitors.

The State Department on Monday said the impending ban sets a “dangerous precedent,” a statement that prompted a volley back from the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington.

The dispute started Sunday, when the United Arab Emirates government announced that it would block RIM’s service to the half-million local users, citing the company’s repeated failure to comply with national security rules.

“The suspension is a result of the failure of ongoing attempts, dating back to 2007, to bring BlackBerry services in the UAE in line with telecommunications regulations,” a press release on the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority site said, adding that the termination is set for Oct. 11.

Saudi Arabia has announced similar intentions for its 700,000 BlackBerry users, but the United Arab Emirates has becomes the focus of attention.

The basic dispute involves BlackBerry’s use of satellites rather than domestic routers to send e-mail and text-message data, which makes it harder for a law-enforcement agency or other outside party to monitor. Also, the company encrypts the data and can’t even access it itself.

As a result, the BlackBerry is prized for its security. The ban covers only those devices and not such rivals as iPhones.

“One thing that is different with a BlackBerry is that even e-mails sent between two users inside the U.A.E. — for example, workers for a Dubai company — pass through RIM servers elsewhere in the world,” said Tom Simonite, computing editor at Technology Review. “By contrast, using an iPhone in the same way probably wouldn’t see e-mails leave the country.”

An official at the United Arab Emirates Embassy told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that the BlackBerry’s method is “a complete blind spot to legal jurisdiction.”

But in a statement Monday, Research in Motion assured the other 40 million BlackBerry users worldwide that it wasn’t backing down. It said the company “will not compromise the integrity and security of the BlackBerry Enterprise Solution.” Not even RIM has the ability to access its customers’ private data, the release said.

The company said most of the world accepts its security protocols, which make it much harder for an outsider — whether a domestic police officer, a foreign spy or a rival businessman, as the technology issues are the same — to eavesdrop or collect data transmitted on the company’s network.

RIM “provides a security architecture that is widely accepted by security-conscious customers and governments around the world,” the statement said. “RIM respects both the regulatory requirements of government and the security and privacy needs of corporations and consumers.”

The company said the United Arab Emirates and other governments “have a wide range of resources and methodologies to satisfy national-security and law-enforcement needs without compromising commercial security requirements.”

The dispute reached diplomatic circles Monday, although the State Department issued no specific travel warnings or advisories to the United Arab Emirates as a result. Nevertheless, a State Department spokeswoman told The Times that the ban is “disappointing.”

“When American citizens travel abroad, of course you’re always aware that you’re no longer within the United States,” Nicole Thompson said.

Also Monday, State Department spokesman Phillip J. Crowley called the impending ban a violation of human rights.

“It’s not about a Canadian company. It’s about what we think is an important element of democracy, human rights, and freedom of information and the flow of information in the 21st century. … We think it sets a dangerous precedent,” he said at a press conference.

The United Arab Emirates Embassy defended its government’s actions and said it wanted the same privilege of having its domestic laws respected that RIM grants to the U.S.

“The State Department’s comments today on the UAE’s announcement to suspend certain BlackBerry services from October 11 are disappointing and contradict the U.S. government’s own approach to communications regulation,” the embassy said in a statement.

“In fact, the UAE is asking for exactly the same regulatory compliance — and with the same principles of judicial and regulatory oversight — that BlackBerry grants the U.S. and other governments and nothing more. Importantly, the UAE requires the same compliance as the U.S. for the very same reasons: to protect national security and to assist in law enforcement. It is regrettable that after several years of discussions, BlackBerry is still not compliant with UAE regulatory requirements even as it complies with similar policies in other countries.”

Greg Nojeim, senior counsel member at the Center for Democracy and Technology, dismissed such claims as a ploy to expand control by governments and said he feared that international Internet technology for everyone would be hampered by restrictions imposed by the most repressive regimes.

“It’s troubling that the U.A.E. would cite American laws as if they justify this conduct; they don’t,” said Mr. Nojeim. “We’re concerned about a race to the bottom. When countries that follow the rule of law expand their authorities post-9/11, other countries with poor human rights records are citing those expansions to justify their own surveillance.”

In other examples of government scuffles with companies over international Internet issues, YouTube has been partially blocked in Pakistan and Turkey, and Internet giant Google refused for a time to comply with China’s censorship stipulations. The company’s license to operate within the communist nation was renewed last month, allowing Google to keep its website and operate some Internet services, but giving the Chinese government the right to block certain sites from Google.cn.

Also citing national security interests, nations including Bahrain, Kuwait and India say they want more access to monitor BlackBerry communications.

Mr. Simonite suggested that a BlackBerry ban wouldn’t help authorities in the United Arab Emirates because people engaged in wrongdoing have other tools.

“I suspect that people who are determined to avoid government surveillance could quite easily find another way,” he told The Times. “Having their BlackBerrys taken away won’t necessarily be a big problem for these people.”

Although the United Arab Emirates is a loose confederation of absolute monarchies, it is one of the least repressive regimes in the Arab world. Two of its member emirates in particular — Abu Dhabi and Dubai — have cultivated worldwide reputations as cosmopolitan, business-friendly enclaves. A major spat with the maker of a business device as common as the BlackBerry could damage that image.

According to the Associated Press, the state-owned mobile operator of the United Arab Emirates told BlackBerry users last year to install what it called an upgrade but was really spy software that let authorities see private information. RIM criticized the action by Etisalat and then showed users how to uninstall the system.

• Kathryn Watson can be reached at kwatson@washingtontimes.com.

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