No Blackberries in Saudi Arabia

Last week, Saudi Arabia started banning the use of the Blackberry.  From BBC News:

State-owned phone operator Saudi Telecom has blocked text, e-mail, web surfing and instant messenger functions, users in the kingdom have told the BBC.

The country is one of a number concerned that such communications are encrypted and cannot be monitored.  They argue this hinders efforts to fight terrorism and criminal activity.   The United Arab Emirates has announced a similar ban starting in October.  Lebanon, India and Algeria have also raised concerns about the Canadian-made phones.

Blackberry handsets, made by Research in Motion (RIM), automatically encrypt messages and send them to computer servers in Canada.  Concerned governments have said they want access to these messages and the keys to decrypt them.  RIM has said the company's products were "designed to preclude RIM, or any third party, from reading encrypted information under any circumstances since RIM does not store or have access to the encrypted data".

"RIM cannot accommodate any request for a copy of a customer's encryption key, since at no time does RIM, or any wireless network operator or any third party, ever possess a copy of the key."

Research in Motion has a point here, they do not have keys to the network when it comes to encryption.  The way key encryption works is that the end parties exchange keys (either symmetric secret key encryption or asymmetric public key encryption) and then use those keys to encrypt the message.  If the message is intercepted in transit, it is unreadable to that person who intercepted the message without it.  Given enough time or processing power any message is decipherable, but the theory behind encryption is that by the time the message was broken, the contents of the message is stale-dated and not useful.

Saudi Arabia understands this, of course.  But I suspect that some people in governments of various countries do not.  RIM might store the messages on computer servers in Canada, but they are storing encrypted content, no doubt as a backup for their clients.  If the client ever experiences data loss and needs to recover the message, they can petition to pull them from the backups that RIM maintains and decrypt them again.  However, the clear text data is beyond the reach of RIM, that is, they cannot decrypt it.  All they are doing is holding onto the data but they are not doing anything with it.  They cannot be tempted to do anything with it either, even if they wanted to.

The solution for the Saudis, apparently, is to ban the use of the Blackberry.  The motivation behind the request for data is in the interests of national security.  After the events of September 11, Saudi Arabia had to fight its own jihadist uprising particularly in the years 2003-2004 (this was their tradeoff for cooperating with the United States).  Much of the funding of terrorism (financial, logistical) flows (flowed?) out of individuals based in Saudi Arabia and so the government decided that if they were going to crack down on terrorism within their own country, they needed to better monitor communications.  However, if they are going to monitor communications, they actually need to be able to read the communications.

In the west, we view the privacy of communications as sacrosanct unless the government has a warrant (are you listening, NSA?  Hmm, you probably are).  However, in other countries, they view social stability as more important than individual freedom.  So, from their point of view, the loss of personal privacy is a smaller price to pay compared to the potential for social unrest.  Because social unrest is such an undesired outcome, they need to ensure that they can keep tabs on potential sources of unrest.  And if encrypted messages prevents the government from preventing social unrest, then at least the short term fix is to block the use of encrypted messages.  This is the reasoning behind the ban. 

The fact that countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Algeria and India have all raised concerns is not surprising.  You can expect other countries like Yemen and and Oman to eventually follow suit, because all of these countries have started experiencing (or historically experienced) incidents of domestic or international terrorism.  Ironically enough, my own guess (if you allow me to speculate) is that the United States is pressuring these countries (except possibly India) to crack down on terrorism within their own borders.  Yet while the United States considers personal privacy a right, it is US pressure that is driving these countries to strip their citizenry of privacy.  Say these other countries “If you want us to clamp down, then this is what we have to do.  So shut up about it.”

Something like that.

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