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Saudi women talk on their BlackBerry phones at a shopping mall in Riyadh on Thursday, Aug. 5. (FAHAD SHADEED/Fahad Shadeed/Reuters)
Saudi women talk on their BlackBerry phones at a shopping mall in Riyadh on Thursday, Aug. 5. (FAHAD SHADEED/Fahad Shadeed/Reuters)

Canada speaks out against UAE threat to ban BlackBerry services Add to ...

Canada's International Trade Minister has joined the U.S. Secretary of State in speaking out against the United Arab Emirates for its threat to ban some of Research In Motion's BlackBerry services - positioning Ottawa as a mediator in a quest to resolve the increasingly public feud between the conservative Gulf country and the smart-phone maker.

"We obviously have broad concerns about what they're doing," Peter Van Loan said in an interview about the UAE's decree that some BlackBerry services, such as e-mail and instant messaging, be banned in October unless RIM allows the local government to monitor communication traffic on the devices.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington will also hold technical meetings with the UAE and other nations regarding the looming BlackBerry ban. The State Department had previously said it was "disappointed" with the UAE's decision.

For Washington, the RIM-UAE dispute is a case study in the Obama administration's view of the Internet and other digital communication as a fundamental component of democracy. The U.S. has taken similar positions in the past - most notably in Google's ongoing dispute with Beijing over Internet censorship.

For Ottawa, the feud involving RIM represents an opportunity for the Conservative government to show it will "stand up" for what is perhaps the most widely recognized Canadian company in the world. Mr. Van Loan said government officials are currently in discussion with both RIM and the UAE.

The minister said the UAE's move to ban some BlackBerry services is especially unusual since the country is attempting to position itself as a global hub for business and travel. "It is exactly those communities for whom the BlackBerry has become an essential tool for doing business."

The UAE is one of several countries reportedly considering banning some BlackBerry services over concerns that some traffic on the devices is very difficult to monitor - authorities in Saudi Arabia, India, Indonesia and most recently Lebanon have expressed similar concerns. But the issue has now become essentially a political one, with Ottawa acting as intermediary between RIM and a number of countries.

The central point of uncertainty is exactly what RIM can or will do to help foreign governments monitor BlackBerry communication. On that issue, there seems to be a gap between the two sides - RIM has flatly stated it cannot monitor encrypted data because it doesn't have the encryption key, but the UAE government is adamant that the snooping powers it is asking for are nothing more than what RIM already provides to other countries, including the U.S.

A former RIM employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said RIM cannot monitor the content of encrypted BlackBerry Enterprise server traffic, which flows through corporate networks.

"There's no way that RIM could monitor that stuff. It wouldn't be possible unless they're willing to make major changes to the network architecture," he said. In the case of enterprise traffic, he added, "the only thing RIM knows is where the data is coming from and where it's going to - all they do is route it."

But security isn't nearly as high for some consumer services on BlackBerrys, he said, because if the user syncs their BlackBerry with a third-party e-mail system that doesn't encrypt data, the traffic can be monitored much more easily.

As such, a compromise may be easier to reach on the consumer side - although RIM, the UAE and Ottawa will not talk to the media about any proposed solution. It does appear that the UAE government is far more concerned with consumer-based traffic - where it believes there is a potential for criminals and political dissidents to operate unobstructed - than the enterprise side, where it risks alienating its vital business community. Several countries have specifically mentioned BlackBerry Messenger software as a particular concern.

One Canadian security expert, speaking on condition of anonymity because his employer had not authorized him to talk to the media, said ultimately, any form of traffic can be monitored - but the cost of doing so quickly becomes enormous for governments looking to do the monitoring.

"If you own the servers themselves, then you have the controls," he said. "But if you put in an independent carrier environment such as RIM, it becomes increasingly expensive to the point where it becomes cost-preclusive.

"If all technical solutions are too costly, you might pursue a political solution."

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