How data is managed on BlackBerrys raises questions about popular device

Written by LuAnn LaSalle, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL – How email and text messages are managed on BlackBerry smartphones is facing scrutiny in the United Arab Emirates where authorities say the devices operate outside national laws.

The Middle Eastern country’s telecommunications watchdog has noted that data services are managed by Research In Motion (TSX:RIM) outside local control and it wants that to change.

The United Arab Emirates is among countries that censor websites and other forms of media.

“It’s a control issue,” PC Magazine analyst Sascha Segan said Monday.

Data from BlackBerrys in United Arab Emirates goes through RIM computers in the United Kingdom, he said.

“Uniquely on BlackBerrys, all email and a lot of other data goes to a set of RIM computers before it goes to its destination,” said Segan, managing editor of PCMag Mobile.

“That is so RIM can compress the data to speed up transfers and so that RIM can bundle it to lower the impact on battery life, and so that RIM can encrypt and secure the data for corporate management reasons.”

The result is good for wireless carriers, too, because BlackBerrys use less network capacity,” Segan said from New York.

The BlackBerry is well-known known for the security it provides to its users, which may be of interest to authorities in UAE.

Segan also noted that UAE’s major mobile operator had tried to get its BlackBerry users to unknowingly install spy ware, presumably to allow government access to content.

RIM has said tests showed the update was spy software that could allow outsiders to access private information stored on BlackBerrys. It provided users with information on how to remove the software.

Technology analyst Nick Agostino said it’s a political move by authorities in that country. Countries such as India and China have had similar concerns with the BlackBerry device, he said.

“I think, basically, RIM is going to pull out their file and look at discussions they’ve had with China, with India, and basically go down that same path,” said Agostino of Mackie Research Capital Corp.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have expressed similar security concerns about the BlackBerry.

“I think we are going to see more of this, not from developed nations but from the non-democratic emerging markets,” he said from Toronto.

But he said he doesn’t expect the issue to be detrimental to RIM in the long term, calling it “a headline noise.”

Agostino said RIM could make some changes to give UAE potential access to information.

The UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said Sunday that as a result of how BlackBerry data is managed and stored that “certain Blackberry applications allow people to misuse the service, causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions.”

“Like many other countries, we have been working for a long time to resolve these critical issues, with the objective of finding a solution that safeguards our consumers and operates within the boundaries of UAE law,” the authority said via the country’s state news agency.

RIM had no immediate comment on Monday.

Reporters Without Borders says even though the United Arab Emirates has the highest Internet penetration rate in the Arab world, the authorities have put in place “an extensive system to filter sensitive subjects, backed by repressive laws.”

“Netizens are increasingly resorting to proxy servers to access thousands of banned websites,” the organization says its on website.

The UAE’s telecommunications authority said the BlackBerry was launched before legislation was introduced in 2007 to regulate BlackBerry applications.

RIM’s BlackBerry messenger service has about 25 million users among the tech company’s 46 million subscribers, giving users real-time chat and privacy.

Shares in RIM closed down 51 cents at $57.18 on Monday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

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