BlackBerry service is 'beyond UAE law'

BlackBerry is operating beyond the reach of UAE law, the Government said yesterday, casting doubt on its future in the Emirates.

Dubai - July 21, 2009 - A woman uses a Blackberry in the DIFC building in Dubai, July 21, 2009. STOCK (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National) *** Local Caption ***  JT002-0721-BLACKBERRY STOCK 7F8Q2926.jpg
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ABU DHABI // BlackBerry is operating beyond the reach of UAE law, the Government said yesterday, casting doubt on the future of the popular mobile e-mail and messaging service in the Emirates. The BlackBerry offers data communication encrypted using one of the world's most complex security codes and is operated by the device's Canadian maker, Research In Motion (RIM). About 500,000 residents subscribe to the service in the Emirates, in addition to visitors on business or holiday.

"BlackBerry operates beyond the jurisdiction of national legislation, since it is the only device operating in the UAE that immediately exports its data offshore and is managed by a foreign, commercial organisation," the Government said in a statement on the official news service, WAM. "As a result of how BlackBerry data is managed and stored, in their current form, certain BlackBerry applications allow people to misuse the service, causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions."

The statement comes after recent investigations into security issues posed by the use of BlackBerry technology by regulatory authorities in India, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This month a survey of BlackBerry subscribers commissioned by WAM found that there were "concerns" about the safety of data among UAE consumers. Three-quarters of the survey respondents said they would be worried if their e-mails were being stored by an independent organisation outside the UAE.

According to the poll, 58 per cent of the respondents said they would also be worried if the mobile applications they used were beyond the reach of the UAE courts. The Government statement said that "we have been working for a long time to resolve these critical issues, with the objective of finding a solution that safeguards our consumers and operates within the boundaries of UAE law". This month the Indian telecommunications ministry gave RIM a deadline to provide access to messages on its network, according to media reports.

India's intelligence officials have long complained they are unable to decipher encrypted data sent on BlackBerry handsets, which were used during the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. In March, Saudi Arabia's communication and information technology commission was reported to have asked RIM to give it access to the BBM network and threatened to shut down the service if RIM did not comply. The commission later decided against a block.

In Kuwait, the Arab Times newspaper reported in May that the ministry of interior was planning to stop the BlackBerry Messenger service because neither the ministry of communications nor security authorities had access to the encryption codes. But it is not clear whether the service has been blocked as the country's three telecoms operators have not received any request from the ministry to enforce a ban on the message service.

RIM declined to comment. The TRA said that it has been working for a "long time" with RIM to regulate how the BlackBerry service in the country is managed "within the boundaries of UAE law". One of the possible solutions suggested by the UAE Government was to install a BlackBerry network in the country. Canada and the UK are the only countries that have a specialised BlackBerry network within their borders.

The security behind the BlackBerry service has been one of the device's main selling points in the increasingly competitive smartphone industry. Messages transmitted by devices such as Apple's iPhone and Nokia smartphones are relayed with a lower level of encryption. The estimated 500,000 BlackBerry users in the UAE equates to a penetration rate of about 11 per cent, one of the highest in the world. More than 187,000 BlackBerry devices were sold in the country last year, according to IDC, a technology research firm.