A sour season for BlackBerry

The TRA's decision to suspend some BlackBerry services thrust the phone's maker into confrontation with a host of government agencies around the world.

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The original BlackBerry, which came out in 1998, ran on a pair of AA batteries.

It boasted a two-way pager, a calendar and a monochrome screen.

Had it stuck to those features, it might never have become the ubiquitous smartphone beloved by corporate executives. Nor would it have sparked an international incident more than a decade later.

But when the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) announced on August 1 that it would suspend BlackBerry e-mail and instant messaging services, Research In Motion (RIM), the phone's maker, was thrown into confrontation with a host of government security agencies around the world.

At the heart of the issue was the fact that RIM's encrypted traffic passes through a network of operating centres, mostly based in its native Canada, which cannot be monitored by local security forces for threats.

On the same day the TRA declared its plan, Saudi Arabia said it would follow suit and suspend secure BlackBerry services, granting only a few days for smartphone owners and telecoms companies to react.

The suspension was lifted within a matter of days. "Evaluation and review will continue in light of the developments," the kingdom's communications regulator said.

Bans were also mooted by a host of other countries, including Indonesia, Algeria and Lebanon, none of which are yet in effect. But the largest threat to RIM came when India raised the possibility of a ban, which would cut off services to around half a million BlackBerry users in the country.

RIM has been under intense pressure to toe the line from India's security services since the Mumbai attacks, which left 166 people dead in 2008.

India alleges that the attackers used BlackBerrys specifically to avoid eavesdropping by the country's security services. Within a day of the UAE's announcement, the US government had waded into the dispute, saying it was "disappointed" with the Government's decision.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, soon entered the fray, saying authorities had to balance "legitimate security concerns" with "right of free use and access".

UAE officials responded, describing the comments as "disappointing and contradicting the US government's own approach to telecommunications regulation".

"The UAE is exercising its sovereign right and is asking for exactly the same regulatory compliance - and with the same principles of judicial and regulatory oversight - that BlackBerry grants the US and other governments, and nothing more," said Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US.

"Importantly, the UAE requires the same compliance as the US for the very same reasons: to protect national security and to assist in law enforcement," WAM reported Mr al Otaiba saying on August 2.

RIM professed all along to maintaining a "consistent global standard" for lawful access to its messaging system that "does not include special deals for specific countries". The company added that access for security forces would be impossible to provide, as it could not decrypt the data on its customers' servers. A "backdoor key" to access customers' data, it insisted, simply did not exist. However, The Wall Street Journal reported that RIM had offered a security fix to the Indian government, throwing the company's claims into doubt.

Matthew Reed, an analyst at the research house Informa, said: "One thing that has been revealed is how opaque this whole area is. Even now it's not terribly clear, even to people who were monitoring the industry."

With a deal between RIM and the UAE regulator, attention will turn to whether the Indian government will also reach a deal. India's home secretary, G K Pillai, said he expected a permanent solution in the coming months.

RIM's shares were at C$49.69 (Dh180), up 83 cents, in afternoon trading in Toronto yesterday. Before the wrangle with the UAE, the shares were in the C$57 range.