The Blackberry Ban

6 Aug, '10

Bahrain started it. UAE happily followed, and of course Saudi rushes headlong into the gap and slaps an apparent full ban on the Blackberry services. Now, one country after another is announcing or at least mulling how they too can find an excuse to apply their band on a service that has revolutionised how people communicate on the go.

The scariest device so far invented to authoritarian regimes?

The ever [wannabe] creative Lebanon now ups the anti a bit further, and says that it’s mulling banning the Blackberry services because:

the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority chairman said Beirut will assess security concerns about the smartphones following the arrest of several telecoms employees suspected of spying for Israel. AFP/MSN

There you go, now the remaining 18 Arab countries will all be “contemplating” and many Muslim countries in our illustrious Umma will take this lead (which now officially contains the required passwords: spying and Israel) and will run with it. But they won’t stop at banning Blackberry services, oh no, as their intention is to cut us off from knowledge, choice and the rest of the world, they will expedite their encroachment on curtailing the Internet under this and many other guises.

If we pause a little and try to think about this latest situation rationally, I think one thing which is not said will ultimately be understood: our countries are built on notions of Big Brother. From the way that the religion is applied through to the current crop of political systems, they are all built on the state’s requirement to know every single insignificant thing we do and even think! Their security apparatus is built to serve that requirement, watching every single subject (we really don’t have any “citizens” in our countries, just subjects) is watched. They know every single thing we do, good and bad, and am sure that should they wish, they can blackmail us with information in their files, something that they’re not too shy about doing, and of course, regard for the country’s image in international spheres is immaterial.

With the advent of encryption such as those used by Blackberry and other devices, they suddenly realised that they no longer have immediate access to that information pipe. No matter how much money they throw at decryption and monitoring devices, it’ll take those devices a long time to decode messages, and if and when they do, that piece of information’s useful life would have already expired.

I’m sort of glad that the people who are put in charge of the security apparatus in our countries, are almost always political appointees. Almost no consideration is ever really given to appointee’s technical knowledge, management expertise or even common sense. Loyalty and the ability of the guiltless application of brute and overwhelming force on the other hand, are the top considerations. Therefore, it’s natural that high technology was not molested beyond the usual ham-fisted bans on the usual ogre: block dissenting sites and obfuscate the ban with imbecilic explanations as “corrupting the youth” or “pornographic” or “anti-Muslim” or “anti-Culture”. Of course, these blocks are easily circumvented, thus showing the frivolity of the tools employed to effect the ban, and much more importantly, demonstrates their complete misunderstanding of how the Internet actually works.

It’s too much to hope that with this latest brouhaha around the Blackberry services that they’re starting to actually understand how things work. Not by a long shot. They once again applied 18th century brute-force and blackmail methods to try to “solve” a 21st century technology. These countries’ resort to threats against the Blackberry, apart from making us all as Arab and Muslim human beings the deserved laughing stock of the world, have increased the animosity and disdain the world holds us in.

What is it that the RIM chief said?

“This is about the Internet,” Mr. Lazaridis said. “Everything on the Internet is encrypted. This is not a BlackBerry-only issue. If they can’t deal with the Internet, they should shut it off.” WSJ.com – 5 Aug 2010

Indeed.

If they can’t deal with the Internet, they should shut it off.

And they shall. Given half a chance. And you know what, the sheep that we have been conditioned to be over centuries will just take it in our stride, won’t complain, and will actually start suggesting “alternatives” and that we don’t need the “Western model of the Internet. We’re going to do our own Islamically sanctified version which – by the grace of Allah – will be much better and more secure than the Western decadent version.”

And our incumbent telecoms company seems to be doing just that, or at least preparing for that eventuality:

Batelco responds to Blackberry Customers Concerns about possible Suspension of Service

In response to continued speculation, Batelco has announced that it is working to ensure that any inconvenience will be minimized for its Blackberry customers if Batelco is directed to suspend some Blackberry services such as the popular messenger or email.

“We want to assure all our Blackberry customers that Batelco is working on alternative offers to minimize any inconvenience should some services be suspended,” said Batelco Group General Manager Media Relations Ahmed Al Janahi.

“We will fully comply with any directive to suspend some Blackberry services, should such be issued, as this is a legal obligation on Batelco,” continued Mr. Al Janahi.

“It’s not proper to speculate what the specific alternative offers will be at this stage. Our Marketing and Sales teams are finalizing such offers. We believe that no Batelco customer should be financially penalized if limitations are placed on some Blackberry services – we will address all customers’ concerns as quickly as practicable,” he stated.

Batelco confirmed that no formal directive has been received to date.

“At this stage it is prudent to plan for such a scenario and proactively inform our customers to minimize any concerns they may have. Our commitment to our customers is that we will minimize their inconvenience,” concluded Mr. Al Janahi.

All updates on this matter will be posted on our website http://www.batelco.com/blackberryupdate

What did you expect? They release a statement contesting the ban on the basis of unconstitutionality and the direct negative consequence to their shareholders’ profitability? Do you really expect that any other operator in our country would do such a thing? No of course not. They’ll continue to submissively acquiesce to governmental dictates, regardless of how farcical they are. The situation is very much the same – or actually worse – in every other Arab country. Without exception.

So what are we to do?

  • I would suggest that we secure ALL of our electronic communications: you want to surf? put an “s” in the URL and surf securely. Almost all sites will have this already enabled and you would be able to access a site if you use “http://” or “https://” – try it, it’s the easiest thing to do.
  • If that doesn’t work, use a Virtual Private Network tunnel to access the Internet and send/receive your email – VPN uses encryption which is hard to break
  • Surf the Net using a program like Hotspot Shield, if you find this link blocked, you now know why! By the way, as this application uses VPN to “hide” your source and destinations, it’s an effective application to circumvent website blocks. Surf to your heart’s content!
  • Encrypt your email

What else is there that you can do as a human being who respects himself? Easy, send a short email or fax to the TRA or whatever government organisation overseeing telecommunications in your country. Simple tell them that as a “citizen” you oppose any governmental interference to access to information, including the blocking of services or websites. If enough people do this, they might – just might – put public opposition in their psyche and they might – just might – think a little longer before blocking a site or service. Even if they don’t, at least YOU have done YOUR duty.

In Bahrain, please send an email to the TRA at the following address:

Telephone: 80088888
Fax: 17532523
e-mail: consumer@tra.org.bh

A sample letter might contain the following:

Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Al-Amer
Chairman
Telecommunications Regulatory Authority
Kingdom of Bahrain

6 August 2010

Dear sir,

I believe that the only way that our country can prosper in a highly competitive global environment is by its clear and unequivocal adoption of modern and secure communication technologies, unencumbered with governmental control.

Therefore, I strongly urge you to remove any ban applied to websites, data communication ports or communication devices’ services and refuse the application of such restrictions should they not be demonstrably and justifiably obtained through the respected judicial apparatus, always keeping in mind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its attendant rights to access to information. Doing so, the TRA will indeed go a long way into establishing a communications environment that enriches the social and commercial fabric of the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Yours sincerely,

Your Name
Address

UPDATE: Bahraini Crown Prince Shaikh Salman Al-Khalifa weighs in on the debate and terms those who block BBM services as “Ignorant, short sighted and unenforceable.” via FM @khalidalkhalifa Twitter account:

Crown prince Salman personally insuring that BBM service will not stop.”Decision to stop it is ignorant,short sighted and unenforceable”

Good! Excellent! Now let’s take this to the next step and codify it so that no one else dares suggest it in the future. And while on the subject, it’s high time to approve the new Press & Publications law which enshrines freedom of the press, unblock the thousands of sites which are administratively banned and ensure that any further website blocks are only done via the judiciary (and not administratively) and unblock the “Breaking News” service on BlackBerries which has been blocked earlier.

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Comments (25)

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  1. Ali says:

    great article although i believe the sample letter above should be addressed to the new Information Affairs Authority, TRA dont have any power on issues relating to content. relating to the blackberry issue, they do have a mandate (if instructed by policy makers) to issue blocking services such as the blackberry (not content).

    Let’s hope this new IAA takes a totally new and progressive approach on the issue of access of content and freedom of expression.

    Ali.

    • mahmood says:

      Well noted. Though both are involved as the TRA is the executor, hence the “refuse the application of such restrictions”

  2. abdulla77 says:

    pretty ‘bold’ move by authorities and the CP on the issue and the choice of words used seems a bit harsh, Dont u think this might further set us apart from our neighbors or strain its relations? or the opposite? Further, don’t you think even if we keep this position (being a huge contrast from other neighboring countries), it would still be drowned out by larger countries, hence no point of doing it?

    I would’ve hoped to see a more detailed reasoning as to why we are not following position, whether for security, technical, or commercial reasons..

    abdulla

    • mahmood says:

      And when did any of our neighbours held in high esteem as far as technology, censorship and innovation is concerned? We, on the other hand, have excellent opportunities to exceed and excel, and you want Bahrain to be held back because “this might further set us apart from our neighbors or strain its relations? or the opposite”

      I don’t think so.

      As to your assertion that as we’re small and whatever we do won’t matter, well, since when did the majority effect ANY meaningful change? If you look back at history (even very recent history) then you will find it is the minority which effect change. So I’m afraid you’re wrong again. What we do in Bahrain does matter.

  3. BuJassim says:

    The one important privacy tip I would share with everyone is to STOP using a certain ISP-provisioned email address!

    The quicker we all migrate to ‘the cloud’ the better. There is nothing unique about the way BlackBerry encrypts or stores customer data.

    Google’s Gmail service for example uses end-to-end encryption much like BlackBerry and the contents of your emails are stored in centralized servers overseas.

  4. Steve the American says:

    The Blackberry ban is an extension of the long and foolish Muslim history of fatwas against communication with the outside, a history you should scrap if you intend to be equals of the Western world instead of figures of ridicule. Free minds and free markets is the path to a better future. Anything that interferes with that hobbles your prospects.

    • mahmood says:

      Islam in this case will be used as a scapegoat, so although I am sure that expedient fatwas will (have?) been issued, I think your anger here is misplaced.

  5. Robert says:

    I tend to err on the side of caution here. A lot of email these days is encrypted and the UAE and Saudi regulators have made no effort to block these. When National Security is at stake (and surely it is from time to time) protocols and procedures exist to track emails given certain conditions. My understanding is that Blackberry has made this very difficult with it’s Messenger service – not regular mail. I believe all Blackberry needs to do is locate it’s local Messenger apparatus for the UAE in the UAE (as is being discussed with the Saudi authorities) and the problem will be solved.

  6. Anonny says:

    Steve,

    This is about internal communication and about fears of an inscrutable channel of communication that could be abused by practitioners of terrorism. We don’t want a Sharm El Sheikh in Dubai now do we, Steve?

    As for free markets … do you have free ports in America? Dubai has a very free market.

    I’m with Robert on this one.

    • Steve the American says:

      It would be news to me if the US doesn’t have free ports. By contrast, does Dubai allow Israeli ships to dock there? What if you try to enter Dubai with an Israeli stamp in your passport?

      Anonny, when exactly have any Muslim countries given honest reasons for any wrongful thing they did? “Stopping terrorism” sounds so much better than “censoring communication we don’t like between our subjects.”

      If Muslim countries want to stop terrorism, the first step they should take is to stop funding it and promoting its violent doctrine. They might also redirect the religious police away from their pursuit of those sneaking a Snicker’s bar during Ramadam and sic them on Muslims building bombs to propagate Islam.

      • mahmood says:

        does Dubai allow Israeli ships to dock there? What if you try to enter Dubai with an Israeli stamp in your passport?

        This is a moot point as Dubai, like most other Arab countries are still at an official “state of war” with Israel.

        As to your other point re-financing of extremists, though not done in any direct official capacity, and the curtailing of the religious police and giving people choice, I agree with you.

  7. BuJassim says:

    Robert I disagree. RIM are essentially victims of their own success in this part of the world.

    It’s no secret that end-to-end encryption poses a challenge to government spooks. Like I said in an earlier post there is nothing unique about RIM’s deployment of end-to-end encryption.

    I doubt we’d be having this conversation if the adoption rate of Blackberry phones were minuscule.

  8. mahmood says:

    Free iPhones!

    According to this week’s Epoch Times:

    A ban on key BlackBerry services in the UAE was given extra weight on Tuesday, when one of the country’s leading telecom companies announced a plan to give out hundreds of thousands of iPhones as compensation to affected customers.

    The cost of supplying replacement smartphones for up to 500,000 BlackBerry customers in the UAE has not been disclosed, but it is likely to be an indicator of how far away the country is from reaching an agreement with BlackBerry developer Research in Motion (RIM).

    On Monday, the Waterloo, Ontario based company released a statement saying that it “will not compromise the integrity and security of the BlackBerry.”

    “The BlackBerry security architecture was specifically designed to provide corporate customers with the ability to transmit information wirelessly while also providing them with the necessary confidence that no one, including RIM, could access their data,” the statement said.

    A launch party for the new BlackBerry Pearl, an eagerly awaited consumer offering, was canceled on Tuesday.

    The party, planned for Wednesday at the glamorous Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa—the world’s tallest building—was “postponed indefinitely,” a spokesman said.

    While I personally prefer the iPhone over BlackBerry (a device which I have never used and don’t plan on using), this is just an extreme and distasteful case by the UAE and whichever this telecoms operator is.

    Why is it that “big business” – which one assumes this telecoms operator to be – always chooses the path of least resistance when a confrontation with the government is at hand? But then, as it is most probably owned by the government anyway, are they just making another stupid political statement to pressure RIM to acquiesce to their unreasonable request?

    If this telecoms operator had any shareholders other than the government, I would question their decision to just “give out” iPhones like this. If that move were to be done as part of a plan to lock their customers in for another period of time and get a business case out of this situation, I wouldn’t mind. I’d call it a migration, but somehow, I doubt that this is very much at the forefront of their minds.

  9. BuJassim says:

    Ruffle the wrong feathers and you’ll be subtly reminded that spectrum licences can be revoked as quickly as they were issued.

    That article doesn’t specify what iPhone model they plan on dishing out. I can’t imagine anyone getting hold of 1/2 million iPhone 4s at such short notice given current supply/demand situation.

    Perhaps I should create a Youtube video showing people how to encrypt their iPhones communications 🙂

    • mahmood says:

      I think you should! 😉

      Plus, let me tell you from first hand experience:

      1. People were lining up around the block at Apple Plaza to get a chance to get in to buy a LOCKED phone. I personally witnessed this with hundreds of Chinese tourists lining up with several Apple employees regulating the flow into the shop;

      2. Just 3 hours ago I went to two outlets in Victoria to try to buy an iPhone 4 (could be sold unlocked legally in Canada) and none had it in stock AND they do not know when they would get fulfillment from Apple. These are large stores, the first was the telecoms company Bell and the other is Future Shop.

      3. When I asked the attendants if it’s available in Vancouver, they told me to really not bother because it’s the same situation there as well!

      So I agree, I think it’s probably a previous lower-end iPhone they’ll probably be offering 🙂

    • mahmood says:

      Oh yes and

      Ruffle the wrong feathers and you’ll be subtly reminded that spectrum licences can be revoked as quickly as they were issued.

      Is such a true statement. Ruling by terror actually works, especially when it impacts making unregulated amount of money!!! 😀

  10. anon says:

    does the USA allow Iranian, north Korean or Cuban ships to dock there?! or is it only America that has the right to boycott, wage wars, topple government and destroy nations.

    and in regards to funding terrorism, let’s not forget Iran-contra affairs that exposed the CIA support for the Contra terrorists or perhaps you want some brief history course about America’s support for the Taliban and Bin Laden in the 80s?!

    Finally, opposition to technological and scientific advancements is not a Muslim trade mark, religious Christians, Jews, Hindus all did the same. Even today in the USA there are many who believe in creationism despite all scientific advancement in evolution’s theories.

    Hate is very bad for your health

    • mahmood says:

      the system held this comment in the “possible spam” queue for some reason. sorry for not checking the queue earlier.

  11. Anonny says:

    This encryption issue is global. Other countries have it covered in some way, that’s all.

    As for stopping terrorism, I should have said “stopping terrorism in our back yard.” There have been incidents of domestic terrorism in Saudi and Qatar in the last few years, for example.

    My basic point: surveillance is now the norm and gradually becoming more pervasive all over the world. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to alert you to the Totalitarian Tip-Toe 🙂

  12. Robert says:

    For those of us privaleged to have elected and pay for a government we expect our security services to to access the communications of not just terrorists but anyone who through due process is identified as “of interest” (how this is done is of course another matter). If Blackberry failed to provide data on suspects identified through due process they themselves would be subject to prosecution.

    The fact that the mossad assassins ?? (disgrace to the trade really) used Blackberry messenger for all their communications in Dubai is probably at the heart of this dispute.

    • mahmood says:

      The fact that the mossad assassins ?? (disgrace to the trade really) used Blackberry messenger for all their communications in Dubai is probably at the heart of this dispute.

      I agree and this particular cause has been raised by others I’ve spoken to as well. But regardless, this is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A cop-out on the part of the UAE and its failed security services and an abject failure to understand technology. Had the Mossad agents used iPhones with VPN, would they ban Apple from the UAE? My guess is that based on their reaction, they most definitely would try.

      What they should do instead is not employ the least educated and least savvy people into their security apparatus and change their security thinking to attain a higher level of effectiveness.

      All this of course must be done under the law rather than above it.

  13. BuJassim says:

    It’s not like the UAE have nothing to go on. They criminalized anonymity many years ago when they made ‘registrations’ compulsory by law. You can’t even buy a pre-paid sim card anymore without having your passport/ID details electronically tagged to the service.

  14. BuJassim says:

    Interesting article in the Vancouver Sun.

    Gulf political activists look for new channels of secrecy as BlackBerry targeted

    [link]

    • mahmood says:

      Many thanks for that. Yes, that is indeed another dimension, and I guess that as Skype MENA HQ is actually based in Bahrain, blocking that will create an even bigger fuss should that ever be attempted.

      You know, for all the hype about the UAE and Dubai in particular about how “free” they are, Bahrain – for all its faults – is actually much more free and – dare I say it – tolerant when it comes to dissent! Weird isn’t it?

      The UAE has blocked Skype for a while now, and they seem to be going ahead with the ban on Blackberry too…

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