The United Arab Emirates -- Dubai, etc. -- is threatening to ban BlackBerrys because they can't eavesdrop on them.
At the heart of the battle is access to the data transmitted by BlackBerrys. RIM processes the information through a handful of secure Network Operations Centers around the world, meaning that most governments can't access the data easily on their own. The U.A.E. worries that because of jurisdictional issues, its courts couldn't compel RIM to turn over secure data from its servers, which are outside the U.A.E. even in a national-security situation, a person familiar with the situation said.
This is a weird story for several reasons:
1. The UAE can't eavesdrop on BlackBerry traffic because it is encrypted between RIM's servers and the phones. That makes sense, but conventional e-mail services are no different. Gmail, for example, is encrypted between Google's servers and the users' computers. So are most other webmail services. Is the mobile nature of BlackBerrys really that different? Is it really not a problem that any smart phone can access webmail through an encrypted SSL tunnel?
2. This an isolated move in a complicated negotiation between the UAE and RIM.
The U.A.E. ban, due to start Oct. 11, was the result of the "failure of ongoing attempts, dating back to 2007, to bring BlackBerry services in the U.A.E. in line with U.A.E. telecommunications regulations," the country's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said Sunday. The ban doesn't affect telephone and text-messaging services.
The U.A.E. wanted RIM to locate servers in the country, where it had legal jurisdiction over them; RIM had offered access to the data of 3,000 clients instead, the person said.
There's no reason to announce the ban over a month before it goes into effect, other than to prod RIM to respond in some way.
3. It's not obvious who will blink first. RIM has about 500,000 users in the UAE. RIM doesn't want to lose those subscribers, but the UAE doesn't want to piss those people off, either. The UAE needs them to work and do business in their country, especially as real estate prices continue to collapse.
4. India, China, and Russia threatened to kick BlackBerrys out for this reason, but relented when RIM agreed to "address concerns," which is code for "allowed them to eavesdrop."
Most countries have negotiated agreements with RIM that enable their security agencies to monitor and decipher this traffic. For example, Russia's two main mobile phone providers, MTS and Vimpelcom, began selling BlackBerrys after they agreed to provide access to the federal security service. "We resolved this question," Vimpelcom says. "We provided access."
The launch of BlackBerry service by China Mobile was delayed until RIM negotiated an agreement that enables China to monitor traffic.
Similarly, last week India lifted a threat to ban BlackBerry services after RIM agreed to address concerns.
Nevertheless, while RIM has declined to comment on the details of its arrangements with any government, it issued an opaque statement on Monday: "RIM respects both the regulatory requirements of government and the security and privacy needs of corporations and consumers."
How did they do that? Did they put RIM servers in those countries, and allow the government access to the traffic? Did they pipe the raw traffic back to those countries from their servers elsewhere? Did they just promise to turn over any data when asked?
RIM makes a big deal about how secure its users' data is, but I don't know how much of that to believe:
RIM said the BlackBerry network was set up so that "no one, including RIM, could access'' customer data, which is encrypted from the time it leaves the device. It added that RIM would "simply be unable to accommodate any request'' for a key to decrypt the data, since the company doesn't have the key.
The BlackBerry network is designed "to exclude the capability for RIM or any third party to read encrypted information under any circumstances,'' RIM's statement said. Moreover, the location of BlackBerry's servers doesn't matter, the company said, because the data on them can't be deciphered without a decryption key.
Am I missing something here? RIM isn't providing a file storage service, where user-encrypted data is stored on its servers. RIM is providing a communications service. While the data is encrypted between RIM's servers and the BlackBerrys, it has to be encrypted by RIM -- so RIM has access to the plaintext.
In any case, RIM has already demonstrated that it has the technical ability to address the UAE's concerns. Like the apocryphal story about Churchill and Lady Astor, all that's left is to agree on a price.
5. For the record, I have absolutely no idea what this quote of mine from the Reuters story really means:
"If you want to eavesdrop on your people, then you ban whatever they're using," said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at BT. "The basic problem is there's encryption between the BlackBerries and the servers. We find this issue all around about encryption."
I hope I wasn't that incoherent during the phone interview.
EDITED TO ADD (8/5): I might have gotten a do-over with Reuters. On a phone interview yesterday, I said: "RIM's carefully worded statements about BlackBerry security are designed to make their customers feel better, while giving the company ample room to screw them." Jonathan Zittrain picks apart one of those statements.
Posted on August 3, 2010 at 11:08 AM