x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Security is central to BlackBerry regulation

Analysts say national security and tackling crime are central to government efforts to regulate messages sent using BlackBerry handsets.

The Government warned encrypted messages sent on BlackBerry phones are beyond the reach of UAE law enforcement.
The Government warned encrypted messages sent on BlackBerry phones are beyond the reach of UAE law enforcement.

National security and crime are central to government efforts to regulate messages sent using BlackBerry mobile handsets, analysts say, with most expecting legitimate business communications to remain untouched. On Sunday, the Government warned encrypted messages sent on BlackBerry phones are beyond the reach of UAE law enforcement. Some BlackBerry users take advantage of this, the Government said, leading to "serious social, judicial and national security repercussions".

With more than 500,000 BlackBerry users in the UAE and many international businesses depending on encrypted communications, the announcement sparked concerns among many businessmen that communications could be disrupted. But Said Kiwan, a director of MVP, the Dubai-based business that provides secure technology systems for businesses and government, said he expected state interest in BlackBerry messaging to be focused mainly on matters of national security.

"Similar to other developed markets, our experience has been that for businesses and individuals in the UAE, your privacy is something the Government has no problem with you protecting - including using encryption methodologies to protect corporate data or confidential information," Mr Kiwan said. "However, the issue arises the moment an entity or individual becomes a threat to general security or they are breaking the law."

Use of BlackBerry handsets and other secure or encrypted communications technology is widespread among businesses and Mr Kiwan said such companies should not face any issues after Sunday's announcement. "These guys have private and secured communication networks that are often linked to their global network and they use very sophisticated network and software based encryptions," he said. "We have not seen any sign that the Government is looking to clamp down on that."

Telecommunications officials in the UAE did not comment on the announcement. Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that produces the BlackBerry system, said it would comment this week. Many BlackBerry users said they were not surprised that the Government was seeking a way for law enforcement to gain access to their messages. Hayden Smith, a lawyer with Trowers and Hamlins in Abu Dhabi, said he regarded the security of his handset as equal to other communications methods.

"I don't use BlackBerry because it's that secure," Mr Smith said. "I use it for convenience on the run and I would think that most of us would feel the same. I don't consider the BlackBerry to much different than normal e-mail or a telephone call." A recent poll commissioned by WAM, the state news agency, found more than half of Emirati respondents do not trust the information they receive through BlackBerry Messenger.

And two thirds of those surveyed said subscribers often use BlackBerry Messenger to spread rumours anonymously. The UAE has called on RIM to come to an agreement to allow the monitoring of messages sent through its handsets, but international experts said such deals would be difficult to reach. Stewart Baker, formerly the assistant secretary for policy at the US department of homeland security, said governments across the world want to be given special access to RIM's e-mail and messaging system.

But the same governments typically do not want e-mails sent by their own officials or citizens to be accessed by foreign governments. One solution the UAE offered was for RIM to place a network operating centre in the UAE. "Law enforcement has an interest in being able to listen in to certain communications. That is true in any country," Mr Baker said. "But the problem is that every government has great confidence in its own decisions about what to intercept, but little or no confidence in the decisions of other governments."

Mr Baker, a former general counsel of the US National Security Agency who has published a book about his tenure at homeland security, said the dilemma facing BlackBerry was common in the industry. Customers want secure systems and do not want the vendor to be able to give "back-door" access to third parties. "There is a fundamental difficulty for companies making secure or encrypted products: their customers want assurance that the product is secure against at least some governments, and they don't make much distinction between different governments," Mr Baker said.

"For the same reason, there is demand for products whose security is not within the control of the company that is selling them." tgara@thenational.ae