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BlackBerry bows to Saudi Arabia

Servers moved, ban averted

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

RIM is to locate three servers within Saudi Arabia, putting them under the jurisdiction of local security forces and thus removing the necessity of the planned ban.

That ban did come into effect briefly, with BlackBerry users in Saudi finding themselves bereft of email for several hours while a deal was put together. Now the Saudi telecom regulator has been telling Reuters that RIM has agreed to place servers within the country, and that the threatened ban will depend on how effective those servers turn out to be.

The authorities aren't saying exactly how they're testing the three servers, one for each network operator in the Kingdom, but it seems likely the focus will be on the interception of email messages which has proved so tricky while the nearest servers have been based in Canada.

BlackBerrys cause particular problems to the authorities thanks to their server-orientated architecture - messages sent over the internet will pass through local SMTP servers, while browsing sessions (even if protected by SSL/TLS) will be open to the installation of keylisteners in either hardware or software, but a messages between a BlackBerry and an email account hosted outside the country is almost impossible to intercept.

Etisalat tried to install listening software onto BlackBerry devices in the UAE a year ago, posing as an OS upgrade, but that attempt was foiled by poorly-developed code which drained the battery and attracted too much attention.

RIM claims that it doesn't give any country special access to its servers, and that it doesn't hold customers' cryptographic keys. Both those things are probably true, but neither is pertinent - if a server is within a country then it will be subject to local laws without RIM making any special allowances, and such an interception will not use the customers' keys.

If the customer is using a BlackBerry Enterprise server (and thus entirely secured using their own keys) then that server will be within the country, or at least run by a company with significant presence in the Kingdom, so there's no reason to bother RIM with an interception request.

Technically-literate terrorists will, as ever, continue to use proper security measures and remain outside the reach of the security forces. That's accepted these days - the problem is when unbreakable security becomes a standard feature and requires measures such as this for the authorities to listen in to incompetent terrorists, and the general population of course. ®

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