Blackberry Messenger: Hand Us Encryption Code Or Face Ban

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Jul 30, 2010

[Update below] On the morning of July 29, Reporters Without Borders reported that several citizens of the United Arab Emirates has been arrested for allegedly using BlackBerry Messenger to coordinate a protest against the high price of gasoline. This news comes on the heels of several countries’ working to block or severely limit the use of BlackBerry Messenger in their respective countries. There have also been reports on RIM setting up a server in China under Chinese pressure, even though could not directly verify these reports.

On July 25th, the United Arab Emirate’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said that they believed BlackBerrys could be used in a way that compromised national security, in April of 2010 Bahrain issued a ban against using the chat feature to share local news, and now India has joined the ranks of countries requesting access to data and information sent over BBM. 

Reporters Without Borders has been covering the controversy in the Middle East. Regarding the arrests in the U.A.E., the organization reports:

The authorities were able to trace the organizer, known as “Saud,” because he included his BlackBerry PIN in a BBM message he sent calling for the protest. They held Saud for a week and used his phone to trace those he had been messaging. Accused of inciting opposition to the government, he has lost his job. At least five other members of the group have reportedly been summoned by the police or are still being sought.

So, what is this service that’s causing such a big controversy? Mobile Instant Messaging; in these cases BlackBerry Messenger is the BlackBerry-specific instant messaging program. Sending instant messages over mobile phones can be a great way for smartphone users to communicate – it’s often cheaper than SMS, messages are exchanged in real time, and there are fewer restrictions (such as no character limits and, most importantly, encrypted and more secure communication). BBM gives users a way to communicate more securely out of reach of network surveillance. Chats on BlackBerry Messenger are encrypted and stored on Canadian servers; governments that want access to messages must go through Research In Motion, the Canadian company that owns Blackberry. In short, BBM is more secure than SMS for users living in restrictive communications environments. Hossam Bahlool, director of platform product management for RIM explained in an email to MobileActive how BBM differs from SMS, and why it's popular:

With BBM, you are sending messages using the data part wireless carrier’s network versus SMS which runs over the same part of the network that carries voice calls.  As a result, BBM is not constrained by the 160 character limit of SMS and therefore can send messages without a limit on length and can also attach pictures, videos and other files over BBM.  And there's something about those little R and D's. People look quickly and know the message has been delivered and whether or not it's been read. Knowing that is huge. There's also a very personal element to BBM - you're not just sharing photos, videos, what-have-you, you're sending out updates to your contacts, you're changing up your avatar and status.  

It’s easy to see the allure of BBM. In fact, it has sometimes been called "Blackberry's killer app" - much beloved by its younger, non-business users who constitute a growing market for RIM. BBM operates on a BlackBerry PIN system, so users can only BBM with other BlackBerry owners (in comparison to non-system-specific chat applications like MXit or GoogleTalk). Also, it is ostensibly more private than SMS because information is encrypted and not stored by local telecoms. Now, this sense of privacy has led to some governments seeing BBM as a threat. An AP article reports:

Emirati officials have declared BlackBerry smartphones a potential threat to national security because users' data is stored overseas, where local laws don't apply and where analysts say it could be harder for authorities to monitor.

Indian authorities expressed similar thoughts. The Times of India reports:

India wants the Canadian company Research in Motion (RIM), makers of BlackBerry, to address its security concerns or face closure. Essentially, India wants the handset-maker to allow it to set up a monitoring facility here with Indian access to its encryption technology, which it needs for security reasons, a fact recently flagged by security agencies. 

This is the second time that the government has threatened to block the operations of BlackBerry. In the earlier instance, tensions were defused after RIM agreed to provide its encryption code to security agencies burdened with having to monitor the chatter among increasingly tech-savvy terrorists. The fresh confrontation comes after reports that RIM was ready to set up a server in China to address Chinese security concerns.

While RIM so far has not complied with Indian demands at the time of this writing, the International Business TImes reported yesterday that,

BlackBerry uses high grade encryption for data transfers that internal security agencies have found hard to crack so far. Hence the Indian Home Ministry has reiterated its demand that RIM reconfigure its encryption format to comply with intelligence agencies' requirements so that the messages could be monitored.

As governments put pressure on RIM for access to BBM data, the provider is put in a touchy position. The global smartphone market is highly competitive, and the BBM application is a strong selling point for RIM. The worldwide reach of BBM is also compelling - Blackberry users can chat with contacts in other countries free of charge. According to Bahlool, BBM usage spiked throughout this summer's World Cup matches. In the United States, BlackBerry is currently running an advertising campaign that plays up the benefits of BlackBerry Messenger. The ads invite users to “express yourself – your way.” See an ad below:

Marketing campaigns like this one show the fine balance that RIM has to maintain – while users in some countries see BBM as a fun way to chat with friends, for others, BBM’s encrypted data system is the best way to communicate sensitive data outside of the reach of restrictive governments. Bahlool says, "At the end of the day, we're all humans that want to communicate with friends, family, and coworkers in a better way. These are traits that are common across the world." Mobile instant messaging offers a lot of opportunities for people looking to communicate - as certain governments try to restrict communication among people, it remains to be seen how BlackBerry responds. 

[Update] On August 1st, The New York Times reported that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have set deadlines for their demands to be met by RIM; if RIM does not provide access to BBM data by these dates then the countries will block the BBM service. The deadline from the UAE is October 11th, Saudi Arabia's is set for later this August.

Image: Screenshot from BlackBerry website

Blackberry Messenger: Hand Us Encryption Code Or Face Ban data sheet 14311 Views
Countries: United Arab Emirates

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