The recent crackdown on Blackberry’s instant messaging feature in the UAE does not come as a surprise to many. Amid growing tension, Research in Motion, the Canadian company that produces the Blackberry devices, rejected the government’s long-standing plea to decode the popular encrypted message service for authorities, and many features of Blackberries are now no longer useable in the UAE. Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan have all voiced similar concerns over wanting to be able to monitor Blackberry’s encrypted text messaging for ostensibly national security reasons. Western critics have been hammering these countries for infringing on citizens’ rights, but is a double-standard being unfairly applied?
The Emirati government claims that encrypted messages pose a tangible threat to national security in a country to which visas are easily accessible and foreign visitors abound. The authorities may be correct in their assertion that Dubai’s influx of blue collar immigrant workers from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh makes for a delicate mix; however organized violence remains low when compared to the region. Whilst plausible that the government’s oppressive tactics have helped prevent the mobilization of major terrorist cell networks on the ground, Dubai has been a focal point of attention for terrorist financing. For instance, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, A.Q Khan, liaised through a Dubai-based company to supply nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Our Reporter’s Notebook 2009: UAE also highlights the country’s challenges with money laundering.
Skeptics argue that Blackberry Messaging is only one among the many ways to encrypt messages. In fact, terrorist networks and their financiers who are tech savvy enough to conceal their banking activities from authorities would perhaps, and without much difficulty, be able to revert to other means of stealthy communication in the absence of encrypted Blackberry messages.
Those same skeptics argue that the UAE’s decision to move against RIM has as much to do with quelling political dissidence as it does with safeguarding national security. While there is no organized political opposition in the UAE, and the various ruling families are generally popular and well-regarded within their own emirate, the government absolutely will not tolerate any political mobilization of the immigrant community. It’s possible the UAE government is moving against Blackberry Massaging in an effort to restrict immigrant workers from expressing their opinions.
But just how “bad” are the new restrictions in the UAE relative to government “oversight” of telecommunications in countries like the United States? A quick review of the laws in the US reveals that the county’s legal framework governing commercial encryption are not very dissimilar to those currently being advocated by the UAE. The story goes that since the time of the Clinton Administration, the U.S. has favored the adoption of a ”balanced” encryption policy. In practice this has meant that all commercially available encryption products are required to have some technical means by which the US government could gain plaintext access, pursuant to court order. While this policy has been hotly contested in U.S. courts, perhaps UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba is correct in arguing that, “the UAE is asking for exactly the same regulatory compliance — and with the same principles of judicial and regulatory oversight — that BlackBerry grants the U.S. and other governments and nothing more.” And let’s not forget that until the media broke the story in 2005, U.S. telecommunications providers had been granting the National Security Agency virtually unfettered access to their networks to eavesdrop on nearly every email, phone, and text message that passed through them.
So what’s your opinion? Share your comments below on whether the UAE government has gone too far or if a double-standard is being applied.
— Shahryar Malik