RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia and the Canadian makers of the BlackBerry have reached a preliminary deal on granting access to users’ data that will avert a ban on the phone’s messenger service in the kingdom, Saudi officials said Saturday.
The agreement would likely involve placing a BlackBerry server inside the kingdom to allow the government to monitor messages and allay official fears the service could be used for criminal purposes, the telecom regulatory officials said.
Bandar al-Mohammed, an official at the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission, told The Associated Press that BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd. (TSX:RIM) has expressed its “intention … to place a server inside Saudi Arabia.”
That will guarantee the kingdom’s ability to see communications and data exchanged on BlackBerry handsets, he said. Al-Mohammed said talks were ongoing and declined to provide more details pending an announcement, which he said was expected soon.
The deal could have wide-ranging implications for several other countries, including India and the United Arab Emirates, which have expressed similar concerns over how RIM handles data.
Saudi security officials fear the service could be used by militant groups to avoid detection. The kingdom has been waging a crackdown for years against al-Qaida-linked extremists. The country also enforces heavy policing of the Internet, blocking sites both for political content and for obscenities.
“Whatever Saudi Arabia does will be followed by other countries in the region,” said John Sfakianakis, a BlackBerry user who is chief economist at the Riyadh-based Banque Saudi Fransi-Credit Agricole Group.
“RIM is quite smart. They’re seeing this is a very lucrative market. They don’t want to take themselves out of this market,” he added.
A second Saudi regulatory official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the details of the deal, said tests were now underway to determine how to install a BlackBerry server inside the country.
RIM representatives did not immediately return messages seeking confirmation.
The Canadian company issued a statement last Tuesday denying it has given some governments access to BlackBerry data.
RIM says its technology does not allow it, or any third party, to read encrypted emails sent by corporate BlackBerry users. The consumer version has a lower level of security.
Canadian International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan confirmed Friday that Canadian officials were in talks with RIM and Saudi officials to try to avoid the ban.
The kingdom is one of a number of countries expressing concern that the device is a security threat because encrypted information sent on the phones is routed through overseas computers — making it difficult, it not impossible, for local governments to monitor.
Critics, however, maintain that Saudi Arabia and other countries are also motivated by the desire to further curb freedom of expression and strengthen already tight controls over the media.
The UAE has announced it will ban BlackBerry email, messaging and web browsing starting in October, and Indonesia and India are also demanding greater control over the data.
Analysts say RIM’s expansion into fast-growing emerging markets is threatening to set off a wave of regulatory challenges, as its commitment to keep corporate emails secure rubs up against the desires of local law enforcement.
Saudi Arabia’s telecommunications regulator, known as the Communications and Information Technology Commission, announced plans for the ban on Tuesday, saying the BlackBerry messenger service “in its present state does not meet regulatory requirements,” according to the state news agency SPA. It had been due to be shut off Friday.
Sfakianakis, the Saudi-based banker, uses three BlackBerrys operated by different telecom companies. He said access to messaging, emails and the web was interrupted for a brief period early Friday but was quickly restored. No reason was given for the interruption.
BlackBerry phones are popular both among businesspeople and youth in the kingdom who see the phones’ relatively secure communication features as a way to avoid attention from the authorities. Local media estimate there are some 750,000 BlackBerry users in the country.
“Over the past year and a half, its market presence has increased tremendously,” Sfakianakis said, describing the devices as “a must” for doing business in Saudi Arabia.