Econet clashes with Potraz over BlackBerry security

Research In Motion's top-notch security is both a blessing and a curse for the company as governments in some key emerging markets, where RIM is looking for growth, threaten to block the BlackBerry service over national security concerns.

Econet Wireless Zimbabwe has clashed with regulator Potraz (Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe) after it emerged that some of its subscribers and workers were using BlackBerry services without prior licensing.

Players in the information and communication technology field have been pointing fingers at the regulator, accusing it of stifling progress and employment-creation opportunities in the fast-moving sector.

With more than 90 percent of the U.S. population owning a cell phone, companies such as RIM are looking to new markets, such as the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, for new subscribers. These markets are expected to grow as smartphones become more popular worldwide.

Governments in several countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and India threatened to shut down BlackBerry e-mail and Web browsing services in their countries last year.

Regulators in these countries said RIM's stringent encryption and security network posed security concerns as the authorities were unable to monitor and read e-mails and Web browsing activity. Most of these countries are prone to terrorist attacks, which make use of such secure communication services.

What makes this situation interesting is the fact that RIM, the No. 1 smartphone maker in North America and No. 2 worldwide, achieved its strong market position because of its tight security. The encryption key developed by BlackBerry’s manufacturers was partly designed to ensure secrecy during corporate business deals so they were not compromised.

Now consumers have jumped on the BlackBerry bandwagon, and this poses a wider issue for less-developed or funded intelligence services. "RIM's strong security has been a double-edged sword," said Ross Rubin, an analyst with NPD Group. "On the one hand it has helped the company get where it is today. But now it's threatening its growth in new markets."

BlackBerry Messenger, however, is secure. It’s so secure, that though China has state-controlled press and broadcasting media, along with issues of censorship and Internet filtering, even data sent across BlackBerry Messenger cannot be read by the Chinese government. This, of course, makes it highly popular with their booming younger generation of users (so a RIM spokesperson told me).

With consumer privacy being a constant hot topic, especially in the rise of publicly available data and the need to share your own information to gain others – social networking being a prime example, the individual right to privacy of communications takes personal precedence.

Scrambling for Security

So what is it exactly about RIM's security that has corporate users drooling and government security officials' knickers in a knot? RIM goes above and beyond the typical secure Internet connection that any service transmitting sensitive data over the Internet uses to protect data.

All smartphones that provide corporate e-mail connect over secure Internet connections to protect data. But RIM adds a level of encryption to its service that the others do not. In other words, the message coming from a BlackBerry is already scrambled before it gets to the secure service connection. The message is then unscrambled when it reaches its destination on the other side of the connection.

The key used to scramble and unscramble the messages is controlled by the company or government agency that subscribes to RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise server service. Even though RIM hosts a network of servers around the world that stores this information, the company itself does not have access to the information stored in individual accounts.

The BlackBerry system was devised to ensure that RIM's customers – and not RIM – had ultimate control over its data. That said, RIM said it works with all governments to ensure that the service meets national security requirements. But the company has said that it cannot compromise its service to meet any particular nation's standards.

Still, some industry watchers have speculated that RIM has cut special deals with governments in Russia and China. In Zimbabwe, mobile network operators might have to work with Potraz and BlackBerry to deliver a compromise.

"RIM cooperates with all governments with a consistent standard and the same degree of respect. Any claims that we provide, or have ever provided, something unique to the government of one country that we have not offered to the governments of all countries, are unfounded," the company said in a statement.

Even though RIM encrypts e-mails, placing servers in a host country would allow security officials to open these messages and monitor them, according to a number of security technologists across the world. Zimbabwean mobile operators could take a leaf from the similar arrangements RIM has struck in Russia, Saudi Arabia and China.

RIM has said that its technology does not allow it, or any third party, to read encrypted e-mails sent by corporate BlackBerry users. But the consumer version of the service has a lower level of security. And apparently this is the service that Saudi officials are most interested in monitoring for possible illegal activity.

There are definitely more opportunities that such handsets and services as BlackBerry can offer to the Zimbabwean market. There is need for governments to address national security concerns in light of global terrorism threats as technology spreads across the developing world. The Zimbabwean government must be cognisant of the rules and regulations in order not to infringe on people’s privacy and rights as they make their decisions about BlackBerry use in Zimbabwe.

Post published in: Tech

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *