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BlackBerry Row Spreads As Governments Seek Access To Communications System

A man tests a BlackBerry phone at a shopping mall in Dubai.

A man tests a BlackBerry phone at a shopping mall in Dubai.

The high level of security provided to e-mails and other data on the BlackBerry "smartphone" has become an international issue since the United Arab Emirates announced it is banning some BlackBerry services on security grounds.

India is the latest country to join the ranks of those who believe BlackBerry's encrypted e-mail and other data services are so secure from interception that they could provide a safe means of communication to all sorts of clients, from radical groups to criminals.

The Indian government is in talks with the Canadian company Research in Motion (RIM), the manufacturer of the BlackBerry, about gaining some access to this data. But RIM is taking a hard line. Spokesman Satchit Gayakwad said, "we won't compromise on the security architecture of our corporate e-mails."

He said RIM respected the requirements of regulatory bodies, but that the company must also look at the customer's need for privacy.

Charles Golvin, principal analyst for Forrester Research in the United States, believes RIM will stand firm. BlackBerry's encryption capability is one of the reasons the device is so popular with business people -- among the company's key clients.

"I really don't see them making that compromise because, again, this is a core tenet of the strength of the BlackBerry platform and I think that is something that they are going to stand on firmly," Golvin says.

Monitoring Terrorists...And Dissidents?

The issue sprang to prominence when the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) announced on August 1 that it would ban BlackBerry's e-mail, messaging, and web services from October. Authorities say the problem is that BlackBerry data is automatically shipped to computers abroad, making it difficult for them to monitor illegal activities at home.

The ban will affect even visitors to the U.A.E., meaning businessmen merely changing planes in U.A.E. will have to do without their accustomed services.

Saudi Arabia is acting even more quickly. The Saudi state news agency SPA says that the country's telecom regulator has informed mobile-service providers in the country that they must halt BlackBerry services starting on August 6.

Of course, critics say these conservative Middle Eastern states are eager also to monitor local political and social dissent that could be flowing unknown to them across the airwaves.

That concern has brought human rights groups into the fray. The New York-based Human Rights Watch says governments around the world are trying to get their hands on personal information for a "variety of reasons," and there have to be safeguards in place to ensure that they don't use this data for "nefarious purposes".

And at the U.S. State Department, spokesman Philip Crowley has already linked the actions against BlackBerry to the question of freedom of information.

"It's about what we think is an important element of democracy, human rights, and freedom of information, and the flow of information in the 21st century," Crowley said on August 2 in expressing disappointment at the U.A.E. decision.

"It is our view that you should be opening up societies to these new technologies that have the opportunity to empower people rather than looking to see how you can restrict specific technologies out of a security concern, which is understandable, but we think this is not necessarily the best way to accomplish that," Crowley added.

Back at RIM, meanwhile, David Yach, the company's chief technology officer, says he's not worried about controversy, he's just gratified by how well the security in the BlackBerry system is operating, because it's what the company's customers worldwide are relying on.

compiled from agency reports