Why governments are afraid of BlackBerrys

The encryption of data on BlackBerry smartphones has put RIM on a collision course with some of the world’s more controlling Governments.

Why governments are afraid of BlackBerrys

Earlier this week, the UAE telecoms authority said BlackBerrys worked “beyond the jurisdiction” of national laws because data is stored beyond the country’s borders.

“As a result of how Blackberry data is managed and stored, in their current form, certain Blackberry applications allow people to misuse the service, causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions,” the authority stated, raising concerns the UAE would ban the device.

We fear that this statement is designed to prepare the public for a total ban or block on BlackBerry

“The Government regards the services offered by BlackBerry, especially its instant messaging, as an obstacle to its goal of reinforcing censorship, filtering and surveillance,” noted Reporters Without Borders. “We fear that this statement is designed to prepare the public for a total ban or block on BlackBerry.”

India also raised concerns about the “security” of the device following reports militants were using it, but officials said a solution was in the works and the country had no intention of banning BlackBerrys.

Why are Governments worried?

RIM’s devices give governments greater cause for concern than other smartphones because of their data encryption. “Governments are concerned that the BlackBerry service does not allow them to monitor data traffic sent and received by BlackBerry users, and that this data is handled and stored offshore out of government control,” explained Ovum analyst Tim Renowden.

So the problem isn’t the device, but RIM’s data centres, which it calls Network Operations Centres. “All data sent and received by BlackBerry devices passes through these NOCs and is compressed and encrypted,” explained Renowden.

Such security is a major selling point to businesses, he noted. “This architecture has been an especially strong selling point for enterprise users (and some governments), who demand strong security.”

“However, some governments are uncomfortable with the solution because they have no visibility into BlackBerry data traffic, and are concerned that it may be used for criminal purposes,” he said.

What will RIM do?

A spokesperson for RIM in India told PC Pro that the company doesn’t disclose the details of the deals it makes with governments, but would continue to keep users’ data safe.

Many corporate users would be unhappy if RIM granted governments an easy way of observing their communications

“RIM respects both the regulatory requirements of government and the security and privacy needs of corporations and consumers,” the spokesperson said. “RIM does not disclose confidential regulatory discussions that take place with any government, however RIM assures its customers that it is committed to continue delivering highly secure and innovative products that satisfy the needs of both customers and governments.”

The BlackBerry maker is not the first company to come up against tight controls, Renowden said, pointing to Google’s troubles in China. “The problem for RIM is that security is one of its key selling points, particularly to enterprise customers,” he noted.

“Many corporate users would be unhappy if RIM granted governments an easy way of observing their communications – there are legitimate reasons for wanting data encryption and privacy – and there is a concern that if RIM compromises with one government then others will demand the same access.”

The UAE and India aren’t the only countries looking to monitor internet traffic. “Different governments have different levels of concern around this issue, but there are several countries around the world investigating ways of monitoring and filtering data traffic on the internet,” Renowden said.

“There are big and emotive debates raging about online privacy, security and government intervention, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if more governments make similar demands for access to encrypted traffic and ban technologies that prevent this,” he warned.

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