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UAE sees security threat in BlackBerrys

Gulf of confusion

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The United Arab Emirates has decided that BlackBerry handsets constitute a threat to national security, and is considering an outright ban.

The UAE regulator has made explicit its fears, in a statement to local media picked up by the Associated Press, that users might "abuse" the BlackBerry service to place their communication beyond the reach of UAE's police and security forces. BlackBerrys do this by storing email on out-of-country servers, and providing a decent level of server-to-handset encryption.

"As a result of how BlackBerry data is managed and stored ... certain BlackBerry applications allow people to misuse the service, causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions," said the statement, making it clear that having email "managed by a foreign, commercial organisation" was not acceptable.

This follows last year's comedic attempt by state-owned operator Etisalat to slip spyware onto BlackBerry handsets concealed as a network upgrade. That failed, largely because the spyware was riddled with errors and so poorly obfuscated that even your correspondent was able to find the message-intercepting code.

That attempt seriously annoyed RIM, which felt its reputation was under fire. It also made users wary of downloading updates, so it's hard to imagine that a second attempt would be any more successful.

There are, of course, countless ways to communicate over the internet in a secure fashion, but RIM puts secure communications in the hands of every user by default, and various countries have objected to that over the years.

The UAE's regulator's sabre-rattling statement points out that the BlackBerry went on sale before "safety, emergency and national security legislation" was put into place in 2007, but stopped short of calling for an outright ban immediately – presumably in the hope that if it makes enough noise then RIM will come to the table to make a deal. ®

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