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UAE looks to block BlackBerry mail, again

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Small companies in the UAE will no longer be permitted to use BlackBerry email services, according to local reports, and access will be cut off in the next two weeks.

The National, an Abu Dhabi paper, tells us that the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has issued guidelines saying that any company with fewer than 20 accounts is to have its BlackBerry service suspended, while those with more users will have to have a trade licence and, we assume, respond to appropriate requests for lawful intercept of communications.

Which is what all this is about. BlackBerry handsets communicate with a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) using highly secure cryptography, making interception impractical even by governments. The solution is to listen in at the ends – before or after the encryption is done – but that has proven more difficult than anticipated.

United Arab Emirates operator Etisalat already tried listening in at the handset end – distributing a faked update which included eavesdropping code. That didn't work out, and since then the government has been trying to find a way to access to the BES servers. RIM has obstinately refused to put a back door into its server software (knowing that such a thing would be commercial suicide when it leaked out), leaving the UAE government with no option but to petition the companies running the BES servers themselves.

RIM hosts some servers, for individual accounts and small companies, which are now (we understand) located within the UAE and thus subject to lawful intercept. But RIM also provides a free version of its BES software which any small company can stick onto a PC for truly secure communications, and that presents a significant problem for the security forces.

So, from the end of this month, Etisalat, the local operator with the BlackBerry monopoly, will start cutting communications for any company with fewer than 20 accounts. Etisalat has written to those users to warn them they will need to start using hosted BES servers, or drop out of communication entirely.

That works for an individual's communications, but it means losing the group-focused capabilities for which BlackBerrys are so deservedly vaunted: meeting notes, calendar synchronisation and similar features disappear for the sake of national security as small companies become collections of individuals rather than aspiring enterprises. ®

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