Gulf states plan BlackBerry ban

More than a million BlackBerry users in Saudi Arabia and the UAE face having their services cut off after authorities stepped up pressure on smartphone maker RIM for access to encrypted messages.

Gulf states plan BlackBerry ban

BlackBerry’s Messenger application has spread rapidly in the Gulf Arab region, but because the data is encrypted and sent to offshore servers, it cannot be tracked locally.

This is an issue for RIM since all email traffic goes through its network operating centres

As we reported last week, some governments are worried that the encrypted data is a security threat, with the United Arab Emirates’ Telecommunications Regulatory Authority claiming that users could act “without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns”.

The UAE has now said it will suspend BlackBerry Messenger, email and web browser services from October 11 until a fix is found, while industry sources said Saudi Arabia had ordered local telecom companies to freeze Messenger this month.

The UAE, home to Gulf financial hub Dubai, said it would halt BlackBerry services until an “acceptable solution” was developed and applied.

“It’s a final decision, but we are continuing discussions with them,” said Mohammed Al Ghanem, director general of the UAE’s TRA.

“Censorship has got nothing to do with this,” he said, blaming the suspension instead on RIM’s lack of compliance with UAE regulations.

Users of the device said that could mean disruptions for companies and individuals who rely on the services, including almost 700,000 in Saudi Arabia and some 500,000 in the UAE.

Authorities and analysts in the Gulf said there was no such problem with services on smartphones from Nokia or Apple’s iPhone.

“This is an issue for RIM since all email traffic goes through its network operating centres,” said James Cordwell, an analyst at Atlantic Equities. “Nokia and Apple do not route traffic in this way.”

Bans to spread?

RIM has more than 41 million BlackBerry subscribers, meaning the Gulf bans could affect fewer than 3% of its users.

“The UAE market in and of itself is not significant to RIM. A bigger concern would be if it runs into similar issues in a large market such as China, which has similar security concerns, as Google is well aware of,” Cordwell said.

However, experts believe RIM and the Gulf administrators will resolve the issue before a ban comes into effect.

“I think there will be such an uproar, it probably won’t happen and a solution will be found,” said Irfan Ellam, an analyst with Al Mal Capital. “BlackBerry is seen as essential by many companies, so if you want to attract business to your country, it doesn’t make much sense to ban these BlackBerry services.”

He said RIM had been asked to set up a proxy server in India to allow the government there to monitor traffic from a security perspective and the same approach might resolve the issue in the Gulf.

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