Regimes worldwide attempt to control information on BlackBerry devices

The decision by the United Arab Emirates to suspend BlackBerry services for email, instant messaging and browsing the web as of 11 October was only the beginning.
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Party at the Belgian embassy, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. © Samer Mohdad /

Several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Indonesia and India, are also considering similar bans and demanding access to BlackBerry's encryption technology in an effort to control the flow of information, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Freedom House. UAE authorities say BlackBerry phones are a threat to national security if they can't be monitored.

Unlike other smartphones, data transferred using BlackBerrys has been difficult for UAE state security services to intercept because all data is encrypted and routed through overseas servers. The servers based abroad are an obstacle to censorship, filtering and surveillance, so the UAE government finds it difficult to monitor e-mails and text messages.

"The insistence by UAE authorities that they have the right to monitor all electronic communication is liable to be deeply unsettling to journalists, who rely on confidential communication with their sources," said CPJ.

Writing for Index on Censorship, Christopher Davidson says UAE leaders are afraid of an Iran-style uprising and that the recent ban is a response to increasing political opposition. With more than 500,000 BlackBerry users in the UAE, "the panic amongst the country's unelected and unashamedly opaque apparatchiks has been palpable," writes Davidson. In recent months several sensitive topics have gone viral on UAE BlackBerrys, including details of a Sheikh's acquittal from torture and sodomy charges.

The announcement of the ban came days after Emirati authorities harassed and arrested youth who used their BlackBerrys to try to mobilise a protest about a recent hike in the price of gasoline. They detained 18-year-old Badr Ali Saiwad Al Dhohori and used his phone to trace those he had been messaging, says RSF. He has been held since 15 July. It is also just a year after the government attempted to disguise spyware as a BlackBerry software update. Research in Motion (RIM), the maker of BlackBerry, warned the public at the time about the spyware patch.

Saudi Arabia had also stated plans to ban BlackBerry messaging services, but not email, by the end of August. It has now reached a deal with RIM involving placing a BlackBerry server inside the kingdom, which will permit the government to monitor users' messages, say news reports.

In April, Bahrain banned a chat application available on BlackBerry mobile phones to share local news, reports the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). Local newspapers and many political, cultural and religious organisations had used the service to broadcast news to a wide range of subscribers.

Indian authorities have threatened to suspend RIM's activities in India if they are denied access to encrypted data. Indonesia is also demanding greater control. As well, Lebanon and Algeria have expressed concern over their inability to monitor BlackBerry traffic, say news reports. One exception is the gas-rich emirate of Qatar which has stated it will not curb its BlackBerry use.

"Attempts by governments to control digital information exchange highlight a developing trend of forcing companies to choose between being complicit in government repression in exchange for access to lucrative markets or upholding universally guaranteed human rights," said Freedom House.