x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Saudi holds off ban as BlackBerry deal nears

Regulator says network operators have until tomorrow to test proposed solutions to kingdom's concerns over security; UAE deadline remains.

JEDDAH // Saudi Arabia's telecoms authority said last night it had extended the deadline for a deal on BlackBerry security until tomorrow. In a statement released by the state-owned Saudi Press Agency, the Commission of Information Technology and Communication said it was giving Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that makes the Blackberry, and the kingdom's network operators time to test proposed solutions to the government's concerns over security. It said the deadline had been extended "due to the efforts exerted by the mobile phone service providers in order to meet the regulatory demands of the commission". Saudi, like the UAE, is demanding access to secure data sent over the BlackBerry network. Currently, encrypted messages go through servers that are in foreign countries and therefore beyond the reach of Saudi and UAE law. Earlier, an official at a Saudi-based telecoms operator involved in the talks told Zawya Dow Jones that a "preliminary agreement" had been reached and "a formal deal between the parties is in the final stages of negotiations". While Saudi Arabia set a deadline this weekend - now extended until the end of tomorrow - the UAE has said key BlackBerry services will be switched off unless a solution is found by October 11. An unidentified Saudi regulatory official earlier told the Associated Press of an agreement that would have called on RIM to install computer servers inside the kingdom. "There are only two ways to do this, either you put the servers in the country or you allow access for the data at RIM's servers in Canada," a source familiar with the negotiations said. "[The Saudi telecoms operator] STC is close to installing servers in the kingdom. As for the other two companies, I'm not sure what would be the solution provided to them." Nail al Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington, said it was unlikely a deal could be reached that did not give the authorities access to data. "Saudi Arabia couldn't go back on the ban of the Messenger service as the matter is at the heart of the country's national security," he said. "In order for us to continue our war on terrorism, we will need the technology that will help us. "The US, Canada, and some European countries have access to users' data on Blackberry's instant messaging system. If we want to continue the war on terrorism, we must have the same access as other countries." Frenny Bawa, RIM's vice-president for India, who was involved in negotiations with Saudi Arabia, told the Jeddah-based daily newspaper Okaz on Friday that the company would provide any data on any users that the Saudi authorities required in order to avoid the ban. There are around 700,000 BlackBerry users in the kingdom. @Email:wmahdi@thenational.ae