Research in Motion (RIM) faced the threat last week that its BlackBerry smartphones would be banned in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia because of security concerns. Now there are reports that Saudi Arabia and RIM “have reached a preliminary deal on granting access to users’ data,” but these reports are raising questions about the security of the mobile phones, says the New York Times.
Although it is unclear precisely what these countries are asking for, one demand is for the same kind of access to BlackBerry’s encrypted services that they think the company already gives authorities in the United States and other industrialized democracies. […]
R.I.M. officials flatly denied last week that the company had cut deals with certain countries to grant authorities special access to the BlackBerry system. They also said R.I.M. would not compromise the security of its system.
At the same time, R.I.M. says it complies with regulatory requirements around the world.
But the company, which is generally known for its secrecy, has declined to provide details on its discussions with governments or to explain how it complies with laws around the world that require communications companies to grant government agencies access to their systems for lawful intercepts. This has kept alive suspicions in some foreign capitals and among computer security experts in the United States that R.I.M. has made concessions to some countries. […]
Speaking privately, several United States law enforcement and security officials would not say whether the government has a way to decrypt BlackBerry messages, explaining that they were reluctant to divulge whether any particular service posed difficulties. But there has been little public sign of law enforcement frustration with BlackBerry encryption.
The officials said that law-enforcement agencies in the United States had an advantage over their counterparts overseas because many of the most popular e-mail services — Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo — are based here, and so are subject to court orders. That means the government can often see messages in unencrypted forms, even if sent from a BlackBerry. In addition, officials said that in emergencies, when lives might be in danger, they sometimes sought the voluntary assistance of companies, including those outside the United States.