The UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority warned yesterday that the use of BlackBerry smartphones posed a potential threat to national security. Accusing the company that operates the phones of operating “beyond the jurisdiction of national legislation,” the TRA said it would try to protect both consumers and the law.
“This threat by the authorities constitutes a new offensive against BlackBerry phones and their potential for disseminating news and information,” Reporters Without Borders said. “As its servers are based abroad and its communications use encrypted networks, Research in Motion, the company that makes these phones, is not subject to local laws and is thereby avoiding the government’s attempts to have access to users’ personal data.”
The press freedom organisation added: “The government regards the services offered by BlackBerry, especially its instant messaging, as an obstacle to its goal of reinforcing censorship, filtering and surveillance. We fear that this statement is designed to prepare the public for a total ban or block on BlackBerry. This would be a serious mistake and utterly inconsistent on the part of a country that aspires to be a technological leader in the Arab world.”
BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) has become very popular in the UAE. It is used more and more for exchanges of information on a wide range of subjects including official corruption and a recent hike in the price of gasoline, a source of widespread anger. BBM was used to communicate criticism of the price hike, calls for peaceful demonstration and boycotts of gasoline stations.
The UAE is listed as one of the countries “under surveillance” in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders report on “Enemies of the Internet” because it has established an extensive Internet filtering system. The list of blocked websites (http://www.emarati.katib.org/node/52) includes ones covering human rights, the prison system, the royal family and free expression.
Access to the Internet via mobile phones is also controlled and BlackBerry phones have been subject to filtering since December 2009. The authorities tried to install spyware on the smartphones in July 2009 but had to back down because of widespread opposition.
BlackBerry has been targeted by censors in other Gulf countries. In April, Bahrain banned BlackBerry’s “Urgent News” application, which was being used to distribute reports from the country’s six main daily newspapers and had around 11,000 users.