BlackBerry ban unravels handset's 'monopoply' on mobile security


Carmi Levy

 I feel more than a little sorry for Research In Motion these days. Not only is the BlackBerry maker being pressured as never before in the market by the ever-sexy iPhone and the rapidly-evolving Android, but it’s also facing a kind of political pressure that no other handheld vendor has had to face. Yet, anyway. 

RIM is being pushed by governments in a bunch of places, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and India because they want to give their law enforcement agencies greater power to snoop on citizens’ conversations. This weekend, according to Saudi government sources, RIM caved to government demands and agreed to install what officials there call “a server” within Saudi’s borders. This would allow law enforcement officials to monitor BlackBerry-based messaging traffic.

Call me a cynic, but that’s the deal when less-than-democratic governments bump up, hard, against advanced communications technologies that defy their desire to keep a lid on free speech. This kind of thing goes back a long way. For example, in 1989, the Chinese government limited access to fax machines to keep dissidents from reporting about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In the Internet Age, national firewalls and tight e-mail restrictions have also been the tools of choice of autocratic governments everywhere.


RIM’s best-of-breed mobile security model is so good that it gets singled out while other vendors – I’m looking at you, Apple – get a free ride (okay, who are we kidding? Traffic on iPhones and other smartphone platforms is so relatively easy to pick off that it’s safe to assume that governments are already monitoring them.)

The problem with BlackBerry e-mail and messaging traffic is that it all routes through secure Network Operations Centres (NOC) owned and operated by RIM. The governments in question, concerned some folks might use this super-secure channel to hide from government scrutiny, want RIM to hand over the keys to the security kingdom. If RIM refuses, BlackBerry traffic will go dark in these countries – even for foreign visitors. If RIM gives in to the government – as it did in Saudi Arabia and will, inevitably, in the lineup of other countries currently angling for special treatment – you and I have just lost our last reason for sticking with the platform. Rock, meet hard place.

Let’s not delude ourselves into believing that we’re lily-white in North America. Legislation enacted since 9/11, such as the U.S. Patriot Act, allows agencies to work with telecom providers to gain access to messaging streams in the interest of national security.

We’re naïve to assume that handheld vendors like RIM and Apple and telecom providers like Rogers, Bell and Telus haven’t quietly worked with law enforcement in any number of situations over the past few years to hand over traffic deemed suspicious. The difference? In North America, there actually has to be a reasonable justification for focused monitoring, and a reasonable respect for legal due process. President Obama and Prime Minister Harper don’t exactly sit on their laptops late at night actively watching your IMs to your girlfriend. Something tells me it would be a very different story in the Middle East.

What this means to the average Canadian BlackBerry buyer is simple: The presumption of near-absolute security that’s driven the growth of your favourite wireless platform for the past decade is beginning to ever so slowly erode. As RIM delicately negotiates compromises with various governments to keep its services alive in countries deemed critical to its global growth, buyers everywhere are left wondering who will emerge next and ask for similar treatment. With each new deal, the BlackBerry, already struggling to differentiate itself among feature-forward competitors that have already made the leap beyond basic messaging to full-on mobile apps and services, loses another piece of what once made it unique.

If RIM’s market share continues to erode, the Saudi deal makes it even easier to understand why.

 Carmi Levy is an independent technology analyst and journalist based in London, Ontario. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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