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    Update on RIM BlackBerry Smartphone Security

    Last week, Research in Motion (RIM) faced the threat that its BlackBerry smartphones would be banned in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia because of security concerns. There were reports that Saudi Arabia and RIM had reached a preliminary deal, which raised security and privacy questions about the BlackBerry messaging service, which promises a “secure” e-mail system. Now, the New York Times reports that RIM and Saudi Arabia have reached a deal concerning the cellphones, but Reuters reports problems for RIM in India. And NPR reports that problems that could arise for political dissidents or activists if governments gain access to the e-mail system.

    The Times reports that Saudi Arabia has backed down from its threat to ban the BlackBerry service in the country. “In a statement released through the state-run Saudi news agency, the Communications and Information Telecommunications Commission said it had obtained unspecified commitments from operators and R.I.M. that would aid in the country’s plan to monitor encrypted traffic on BlackBerry smartphones.”

    R.I.M. executives have denied that the company has cut any deals or would compromise the security of its system. A former BlackBerry executive, who did not want to be identified because the person was not authorized to speak for the company, said last week that R.I.M. had never disclosed encrypted contents of communications to any government in the Middle East or elsewhere.

    Nick Jones, an analyst in London with Gartner, said it was more likely that R.I.M. had provided legal intercepts of its encrypted information to certain governments but had not helped the authorities to decrypt the information.

    Reuters reports that India has threatened to shut down RIM BlackBerry’s messaging service in the country unless the company gives it access to the BlackBerry system.

    RIM, unlike rivals Nokia and Apple, operates its own network through secure services located in Canada and other countries such as Britain. RIM has said BlackBerry security is based on a system where the customers create their own key and the company neither has a master key nor any “back door” to allow it or any third party to gain access to crucial corporate data. […]

    India’s security establishment took a hardline view on RIM’s stance that it does not possess a master key to intercept data traffic on BlackBerry, insisting it needs access to encrypted messages in a readable format.

    If enforced, an estimated one million users in India would only be able to use these devices for calls, text messages and the Internet.

    Indian officials say RIM has proposed to help India track emails, without sharing encryption details, which security officials say is not enough.

    NPR’s “All Things Considered” reports on the controversy in these countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Tunisia and others) that seek access to the security codes for RIM BlackBerry’s services. “By encrypting electronic communication, these governments say, a BlackBerry makes it possible for criminals or terrorists to conspire without the knowledge of the authorities.” But, political demonstrators say the fact that they have the privacy to organize without government surveillance via BlackBerry’s secure e-mail service is necessary for their civil liberties protests.

    For dissidents and human-rights activists in the Middle East, the worry is that the BlackBerry compromise, if repeated in other countries, would mean their private communications could be monitored by government security agencies. […]

    The government demands clearly presented RIM with a marketing dilemma. If the company is forced by governments to compromise its encryption technology in order to hold on to its 1.5 million BlackBerry users in the Middle East, customers elsewhere could be chased away. It is, after all, the promise of privacy that attracts many BlackBerry users in the first place.

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