x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UAE follows path of US and UK

In recent years, the US and UK have adopted legislation that allows their authorities to access sensitive data sent by BlackBerry.

This BlackBerry is one of several models Bassam Moussa sells at United Mobile in Abu Dhabi.
This BlackBerry is one of several models Bassam Moussa sells at United Mobile in Abu Dhabi.

In recent years, the US and UK have adopted legislation that allows their authorities to access sensitive data sent by BlackBerry. The UAE has passed similar legislation to protect itself from judicial, social and national security issues but Research In Motion, the Canadian maker of BlackBerry, has not complied with any of the country's requests, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said.

In 1994, the US passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (Calea) which was designed to aid law enforcement agencies to conduct criminal investigations requiring wiretapping over telephone networks. Calea requires licensed US telecoms operators to be able to provide authorities with calling data and call-identifying information if a lawful request is made. The Act was amended in 2004 to allow US government agencies to extend their surveillance programmes over internet calling and broadband connections.

Previously, in 1996, the US passed the Telecommunications Act. In the law, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US government organisation that enforces the Act, ordered a clause that prohibits any electronic devices that interfere with law enforcement. Last year the FCC enforced the telecoms law when it charged a company for the first time with marketing an illegal voice scrambling feature. Uniden America Corp was fined US$23,000 for violating the act with its "General Mobile Radio Service" transmitters.

In Britain, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was passed in 2000 and closely mirrors the Calea legislation. The Act was amended in 2002 to require telecoms operators "in the design, operation, etc of their networks ... to facilitate interception of communications". In 2008, the TRA issued a policy stating that "encryption techniques for the purpose of obscuring the meaning in relation to contents unless explicitly authorised by the authority" were prohibited in the UAE.

Mohammed al Ghanim, the director general of the TRA, said in a statement yesterday: "The TRA notes that BlackBerry appears to be compliant in similar regulatory environments of other countries, which makes non-compliance in the UAE both disappointing and of great concern." While the UAE has adopted similar cyber-security legislation, RIM has yet to comply with any of the government's requests for access.

Government officials have invited RIM to install BlackBerry servers in the UAE, but that invitation has so far been spurned. "It comes down to a sort of tension of ideas between where the jurisdiction lies," said Matthew Reed, a senior telecoms analyst with Informa Telecoms and Media. "From a UAE government perspective, they want to have control within what goes on their territory and their policies should take precedent."

Government officials have said they have submitted subpoenas to RIM to gain access to internal BlackBerry messages for two recent court cases but the company said it could not provide access to the data in time for judgment. Dino Wilkinson, the senior associate for communications, media and technology for Norton Rose, an international law firm with a UAE presence, said RIM has always maintained that it either cannot or will not provide access to any data that passes through its servers.

However, he said there have been exceptions when it comes to national security, and content has been acquired when a warrant has been issued for its disclosure. "For [RIM] to be operating lawfully in the UK and US, there must be ... some comfort over there ... that they've got the capability to [monitor]," Mr Wilkinson said. "The UAE is looking to put itself on a par with the UK and US." RIM could maintain that it does not have the technical capacity to allow any third party to monitor and intercept its data, but that argument has apparently fallen short in the UAE, Mr Wilkinson said.

dgeorgecosh@thenational.ae