RIM battles to beat BlackBerry ban
The makers of the BlackBerry smartphone held last-ditch talks with Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to avert a threatened cut-off of a key service.
Research In Motion is facing mounting demands from governments around the world for access to its encryption system on national security grounds.
The spat, which has highlighted the access some states seem to have in comparison to others, threatens to cut off two million BlackBerry users in the Gulf and India.
RIM shares fell as investors weighed the potential impact. Its Nasdaq-listed stock sank $2.14 to $53.39 on Wednesday, representing a 7 percent drop so far this week.
Security officials in India, a growth market for mobile communications, warned the service would be halted if
the company failed to meet its concerns, a newspaper reported.
"We are very clear that any BlackBerry service that cannot be fully intercepted by our agencies must be discontinued," The Economic Times quoted an unnamed security official as saying. "Offering access to data is part of the telecom licensing guidelines and has to be adhered to."
An Indian government source said RIM had proposed to share some details of its BlackBerry services but
security agencies were demanding full access to a messaging service it fears could be misused by militants.
RIM says BlackBerry security is based on a system where customers create their own key and the company neither has a master key nor any "back door" to enable RIM or third parties to gain access to crucial corporate data.
The company said Wednesday it has never provided anything unique to the government of one country and cannot accommodate any request for a copy of a customer's encryption key.
The Saudi telecoms regulator met senior RIM officials before a Friday deadline to cut BlackBerry Messenger text
messaging service on 6 August.
"(The ban) is only for the Messenger. Negotiations are still going on, the deadline is final," said Sultan al-Malik
from the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC).
CITC said on Tuesday it had informed the kingdom's three mobile operators of the ban.
"The instructions for this ban are coming from high up, it's not like any decision that has been issued by CITC before. They will have to stop it, period," said another CITC official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
RIM officials Frenny Bawa and Khaled Kefel are in the talks which also include technical and regulatory experts from Saudi Arabia's three mobile telecoms firms.
"The talks are still ongoing," a source said.
The United Arab Emirates, which plans a ban on BlackBerry Messenger, email and web browser services from October, said RIM is flouting its regulations. It maintains the planned suspension follows three years of discussions with the company.
The UAE regulator plans no furthers talks with RIM and has told the company to comply by October or be cut off.
The UAE says it does not have the same kind of surveillance rights to BlackBerry messages as US officials do.
Security experts say that many governments enjoy the ability to monitor BlackBerry conversations as they do communications involving most types of mobile devices.
"The ability to tap communications is a part of surveillance and intelligence and law enforcement all over the
world," said Mark Rasch, former head of the computer crimes unit at the U.S. Department of Justice.
US law enforcement agencies need a court order signed by a judge to access BlackBerry call logs, email traffic or other data from RIM. US intelligence agencies do not discuss what capabilities they have to spy on BlackBerry users.
RIM is in an unusual position of having to deal with government requests to monitor its clients because it is the
only smartphone maker which manages the traffic of messages sent using its equipment.
David Yach, CTO of RIM, said on Tuesday that he believed governments were unlikely to follow through on their threats because state officials themselves depended heavily on the BlackBerry.
"I believe they'll have trouble pulling the trigger to shut down BlackBerry. Most governments in the world rely on
Duncan Stewart." Deloitte Canada's director of research in , said: technology, media and telecommunications, said "This is a political issue that has gone back and forth, and it's not just RIM that has to deal with this.
Google has had to deal with this kind of stuff in China."
Russian security concerns held up import of the BlackBerry for years. The state security service FSB was concerned that RIM's strong encryption software, and the presence of servers outside Russia, contravened anti-terrorist laws and limited its ability of monitoring traffic.
In November 2007, the FSB gave Vimpelcom and MTS permission to start shipping BlackBerrys on condition that the servers be installed in Russia.
According to a source with one of the companies, Russian operators still have to secure FSB permission before they can introduce each new BlackBerry service.
The European Commission said it rejected the BlackBerry in favour of the iPhone and HTC smartphones during a
2008 review against certain criteria, including security and cost.
BlackBerry security explained
Q: How does BlackBerry's security system work?
A: RIM encrypts messages as they travel between a BlackBerry server and the BlackBerry device. If a worker loses their BlackBerry, RIM is able to remotely wipe all messages on the device and deactive it.
Q. Is BlackBerry's security unique?
A. Yes. All BlackBerry traffic runs through RIM data centres, which help manage the devices. It also runs through BlackBerry servers, which encrypt and unscramble messages. Those servers are owned and run by RIM's business and government customers, according to David Goldschlag, chief technology officer of McAfee Mobile.
Q. Can RIM unscramble the data?
A. RIM says it cannot unscramble data of its large business and government clients because the servers that handle that task are located at its customers.
Q. Saudi Arabia, India and the UAE have complained that RIM won't give them the access they need to tap into BlackBerry messaging networks so they can protect their national security interests. They say that RIM grants such access to other countries, including the United States. What kind of access does the US government enjoy?
A. US authorities can seek a court order to tap BlackBerry traffic, giving them access to messages sent over the network. Officials with Research in Motion declined to talk about how they provide such access. It is possible that the government provides such requests directly to RIM's customers.
Q. Is RIM refusing to give Saudi Arabia, India and UAE that kind of access?
A. It is unclear. Nobody is talking specifics, with one exception: In the case of Saudi Arabia, the government says it only wants access to RIM's consumer-focused BlackBerry Messenger service.
Q. If the data is encrypted, how is it possible for the government or RIM to even install a wire tap?
A. Bruce Schneier, an expert in encryption who is chief security technology officer for BT, said that it is relatively simple. Authorities need to put an eavesdropping box on the BlackBerry server, whether run by RIM itself or one of its customers, that has the key for descrambling the messages.