News / Middle East

BlackBerry Ban a Hot Issue in Middle East

Christian Caryl
Christian Caryl

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To ban or not to ban the BlackBerry, that is.   It's been a hot debate in the Middle East for nearly two weeks, ever since the United Arab Emirates announced a ban on messaging and other BlackBerry services, to go into effect in October.  This triggered a round of negotiations with Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry. Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Bahrain have weighed in on whether they, too, should ban BlackBerry messaging.

The problem is that Blackberry encrypts its messages, and governments want access to encrypted information. Christian Caryl is a Senior Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology's Center for International Studies and a Contributing Editor to Foreign Policy magazine.

Caryl: Well, I think it's that governments around the Gulf do actually keep a very close watch on their populations and on people coming in and out of their countries.  There are problems in the Gulf with terrorism, organized crime.   There are all sorts of security problems.

And then there are problems that we in the West would perhaps regard as a little less legitimate, like the simple desire of authoritarian governments to keep tabs on what their people are thinking and doing.  There have been these concerns about BlackBerries for some time.

It's really been in the wake of the al-Mabhouh thing that the talk has really translated into concrete action and some of these governments have really started to get very tough on RIM, the company behind BlackBerry.   

Hilleary: You're talking about the Hamas Commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was killed in a Dubai hotel last January.

Caryl: There's been some talk that the people who killed Mahbouh were using Blackberries.   We've never been able to get that substantiated, but it does crop up in some of the commentaries.

Hilleary: There seems to have been somewhat of a tight lid on negotiations between RIM and the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. One reads that the governments would like access to codes that would help them read encrypted messages.  And there have been reports that RIM has actually given these codes to the United States and other governments.   What do you know about this?

Caryl: That's certainly what a lot of people say. It's very, very hard to get to the truth of that matter. RIM denies, of course, that they've given any privileged information to any governments. They deny completely having given any kind of cipher keys or whatever encryption keys you would need to "crack" their encryption.

But, you know, this version that RIM has done deals with some governments just persists.  There's talk that they've knuckled under to the Chinese and a couple of other governments. 

And I was very struck in my research for this piece to see that the loudest complaints are actually coming from the Indians, because the Indians say that the terrorists who attacked in Mumbai in 2008 used BlackBerries for their communications, and the Indian authorities could not listen in to what they were saying.  I don't know if that's true, but that's what we hear. 

And the Indians are very, very worked up about this and say, "Well,  you know, the Chinese have had this capability to listen in on BlackBerry communications for years-there's a double standard."  That's what they say, but again, RIM has been keeping its cards very close to its chest on this matter and has not been particularly eager to address any of these issues publically.   

I don't know-I'd be surprised if they didn't find some sort of modus vivendi with the Saudis.  It's very interesting to watch this from without because RIM is saying,  "Oh, we don't make deals with people on encryption, and yet they've been negotiating with the Saudis about something. 

And suddenly within the past few days, the Saudis said, "Oh, well, maybe we won't ban BlackBerry use after all."  And within just the past few days we've been hearing some slightly more conciliatory things from the UAE.  You kind of wonder.

See related video report by Mil Arcega:

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