Summer of the stifling state

Squashing BlackBerries leaves a dark smear on Lebanon

The possibility that several Gulf states, as well as India, might suspend BlackBerry services unless certain security conditions are implemented is the latest sign of the tension between modern technology and the impositions of the state. In July, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia sought to come to an agreement with BlackBerry’s Canadian manufacturer, Research in Motion (RIM), to impose an oversight mechanism allowing their security agencies to read the device’s encrypted messages. This would affect BlackBerry’s messenger service, which permits users to communicate in real time between themselves, as well as email services. RIM refused and the Emirati and Saudi authorities announced dates for the suspension of BlackBerry.

The governments’ calculations were that their threats would put pressure on RIM’s share value, forcing the company to comply. In early August, however, the Saudis reversed course, announcing that they would allow messenger services to continue, driving RIM’s share value up. Rumor has it that the manufacturers agreed to locate one of their servers in the kingdom, making it easier for the authorities to access data, though both RIM and the government has remained tight-lipped on the issue.  However, both the Indian and Emirati authorities continue to demand some access to BlackBerry’s internet services. The Indian security agencies argue that BlackBerries were used in the Mumbai attack of November 2008, while the group of assassins (purportedly Israeli agents) who killed Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai earlier this year were also thought to have used Blackberries or a similar device. However, the security argument is not particularly convincing. While there is no doubt that modern technology can facilitate terrorist attacks, preventing this might throw the baby out with the bathwater.

 Take the Mumbai episode. Those who carried out the rampage in the Indian port city also used cellular telephones. Yet no state, certainly not India, can readily tap into all cellular communications. And while BlackBerry messages are encrypted, in the confusion of a terrorist attack it is not always easier to intercept mobile phone conversations. The fact is, it is often the quality of policing and speed of reaction that defines the outcome of terrorist actions. Even in the planning stage there are infinite ways for terrorists to circumvent surveillance.

To place an entire population under the government’s eye is extremely illiberal, inconvenient and not necessarily guaranteed of success. Technology in the hands of committed groups generally remains a step ahead of sluggish countermeasures by states.

There is also the matter of image. It is part of the UAE’s brand that places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are business-friendly. The business community has been willing to accept restrictions on certain aspects of life in exchange for an environment that is generally efficient and safe. But they may not be willing to relinquish their privacy for the sake of safety and security, particularly in their business affairs. If they feel the authorities can tap into their private communications and influence key aspects of their work, for example bids or strategies against competitors, suddenly the Emirates becomes less attractive.

Conditions imposed on RIM, particularly among the Gulf states, seems, at least publicly, to be prompted mainly by discomfort that technology is offering people more ways to avoid the state’s prying eye. What is new in the BlackBerry standoff is that the demands on RIM bring two systems into conflict: Western democracy which, for all the inroads into people’s private lives it has allowed in recent years, still defends the right to privacy in law, against systems with a more elastic view of privacy. RIM is being asked to undermine the confidentiality of its clients, thereby breaking its contract with BlackBerry owners, because certain foreign governments cannot do that themselves. This is different to blocking or scrutinizing the Internet, which numerous governments do because they control servers inside their own country. Economic power will be a major factor in determining the outcome of this tussle.

If India can get its way with RIM, it will have a significant impact on what Arab states, with less market weight, decide to do. Ironically, the free market may end up curbing freedom. There may be a point where RIM’s share price, pushed down by recalcitrant governments demanding an end to encrypted messaging, force the company to surrender. This would be bad news, because there is more at stake than just terrorism; not everything we do is the state’s to see.