UAE Bans BBM, Scraps Privacy Protection
By Shahryar K. Malik, published October, 2010
The recent clamp down on Blackberry’s Blackberry Messenger (BBM) feature in the United Arab Emirates does not come as a surprise to many. Amid growing tension, Research in Motion, the company that produces the Blackberry handheld, firmly rejected the government’s long standing plea to decode the popular encrypted message service for authorities. Like other technology giants such as Google and Twitter, Research in Motion has boldly taken up the battle cry to defend privacy rights and freedom of speech. Alongside the UAE, Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan have all voiced similar criticism of the encrypted text messaging facilitated by the Blackberry device, and are likely to discontinue the encrypted BBM facility altogether. The underlying motive behind the UAE’s decision to subvert BBM messaging and privacy protection laws in the West should ultimately dictate how its actions should be judged by the international community.
The Emirati government claims that encrypted messages pose a tangible threat to national security in a country to which visas are easily accessible and foreign visitors abound. The authorities may be correct in their assertion that Dubai’s influx of blue collar immigrant workers from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh makes for a delicate mix of the very rich and the very poor. However, organized violence remains low when compared to the region. Whilst plausible that the government’s oppressive tactics have helped prevent the mobilization of major terrorist cell networks on the ground, Dubai has been a focal point of attention for terrorist financing. For instance, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, liaised through a Dubai-based company to supply nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Skeptics however would assert that BBM is only one of the many ways to encrypt messages. In fact, terrorist networks and their financiers who are tech savvy enough to conceal their money laundering from authorities would be able to revert to other means of stealthy communication in the absence of encrypted BBM messages without much difficulty. The argument posited for upholding the interests of national security in the UAE does not seem to justify the infringement of privacy and the curtailment of freedom of speech.
The UAE’s decision to move against BBM therefore seems to be geared toward quelling any political dissidence rather than safeguarding national security. While the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) notes that there is no organized political opposition, and the various ruling families are generally popular and well regarded within their own emirate, the government absolutely will not tolerate any political mobilization of the immigrant community. Those more likely to own a Blackberry in the immigrant community – the bankers, engineers and managerial staff – are becoming increasingly dissatisfied that their legal rights and corresponding status in the country are not very different from their blue-collar brethren.
During the recession, many migrant workers’ salaries were withheld for several months whilst laborers were not allowed to change jobs or lawfully protest receipt of heir entitlement. Dubai’s migrant workers are dissenting and the government is determined not to let international attention fan the fires of political mobilization. If the UAE government is moving against BBM in an effort to restrict immigrant workers from expressing their opinions and contesting gross inequity, the international community should scale up criticism.
The United States government has hypocritically lambasted the UAE for taking a step in the wrong direction and moving away from their formerly business friendly posture but retains double-standards in regard to US-privacy law. The US Patriot Act still looms over thousands of American Muslims.
A quick review of the laws in the US revels that the legal requirements are not very dissimilar to those currently being advocated by the UAE. Since the Clinton Administration, the US has favored the adoption of a ‘balanced’ encryption policy. In practice this has meant that all commercially available encryption products are required to have some technical means by which the US government can gain plaintext access, pursuant to court order. The Justice Department asserts that only recoverable forms of encryption are lawful in the country. The ruling is widely contested as a violation of the 4th Amendment that guards citizens against unreasonable searches. Perhaps former Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba rightfully contested, “the UAE is asking for exactly the same regulatory compliance – and with the same principles of judicial and regulatory oversight – that BlackBerry grants the U.S. and other governments and nothing more.”
Perhaps the debate has not turned inward on US encryption policy because the architects of the ingenious BBM service, unlike Google, do not disclose which governments request access to the encrypted communication on its servers. The key difference worth noting before pinning down US double standards in their accusations to the UAE is that the United States is not blatantly trying to limit the rights of civil society organizations or prevent interest groups, such as immigrant workers from mobilizing or voicing their opinion.
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