Will Obama Have to Give Up His Blackberry?

Next time President Obama visits the Arab Gulf States, he can leave his Blackberry at home.

Because of its unique P2P security protection which allows neither RIM nor the carrier to read the content of a user’s communication, the Blackberry has become a favourite among corporate users and, apparently, drug traffickers. This is part of its universal appeal, and exactly the reason why security conscious states, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria and India, are having problems with it. Err, hang on. Security isn’t an issue in the USA, China, Russia, etc? Sounds more like a raspberry than a blackberry.

The issue here is one of two. Either all states need to be given access to encrypted and password-protected messages in light of threats from terrorism and criminality, or states need to have their own means of gathering intelligence to cope with these threats. The US Government under President George W. Bush did indeed push for a skeleton key to all modes of encryption from the IT sector, and it is common for customs and excise departments at immigration centres to demand the right to open any bag, by breaking it open if necessary. That’s why frequent travellers get used to the idea of baggage locks that can be opened by customs officials without breakage.

But personal belongings are one thing, messages and files full of information are another. Sophisticated states are well equipped with a toolkit of espionage devices to spy on foreign diplomats, steal commercial secrets from company executives, monitor enemies of the state, etc. Good intelligence means targeting the right people at the right time and in the right place, and maybe that is what Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria and India are not so well-equipped to do. Hence the demand for the easy path, and the threat to RIM if they don’t comply. If RIM complies, then there goes their uniqueness. If they don’t comply, there go their markets in these countries. More and more this scenario is arising; Google in China springs to mind. But why? Is it because of rising terrorism or criminality? Is it just because they can? Is it because ordinary citizens can wriggle with a few more degrees of freedom with digital technologies? In different countries the issues may be different. Clearly for India the primary threat is perceived to be from Chinese telecom and IT equipment companies, although it is beyond belief that Western intelligent agencies are not using their vendors in similar ways when occasion demands. In the Gulf States the enemies are perceived to be both within and without.

What seems most likely is that we are just witnessing the latest round of state concerns with security that is as old as states themselves. Throughout the ages states will latch onto the latest technologies to advance their reach into their populations on the grounds of ‘national security’, a portmanteau expression that covers whatever it can. But that is not good news for ICT companies because, despite globalization, the world is still ruled by states and Blackberry, Strawberry and Raspberry all have to come to terms with the state. Creating local market exceptions is inevitable under these circumstances, but the cost to the state should not be ignored. Corporate investment in markets where industrial and commercial secrets are vulnerable is likely to be limited.

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