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Whose Phone is It, Anyway? August 13, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms.
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As a Blackberry user, I’ve been following the ongoing demands by countries to gain access to Blackberry data as a condition for operating in that country.  Why is Blackberry (and its corporate entity, Canada’s Research in Motion) being singled out?

Blackberry was the first phone to incorporate email, back in 1996.  Because of the state of the cellular networks at the time, Research in Motion had to build its own infrastructure to manage email sending, storage, and delivery.  That infrastructure has since been expanded to include all data communications; the payments for my data plan go to RIM, not my wireless carrier.

Other phones coming later to the game, including the iPhone, the various versions of Android, Windows Mobile (now known as Windows Phone) and the like are all use the data services offered by the wireless carrier, in the case of the US, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and so on.

In other countries, wireless carriers number fewer than in the US, sometimes just one or two.  Sometimes they are in fact owned by the government.  And carriers don’t typically cross national boundaries.  This makes it relatively easy for a government to pass a law, pressure, or cut a deal to gain access to subscribers’ data communications.  It’s more difficult with RIM, as it’s the only major data provides that is truly international in scope.

There are two sides to this.  Having access to the Blackberry network enables nation-states to more readily monitor the communications of potential terrorists.  That’s probably a good thing.

But it also enables these same nation-states to monitor the communications of, well, anyone.  The most amusing quote I heard from a young Saudi who claimed that such access by Saudi authorities was sure to put a crimp in his social life.

In the US, we have relatively strong (though not infallible) protections against monitoring without good legal cause.  Other countries lack those protections, making is more problematic that such monitoring would occur for reasons other than in conjunction with a formal criminal investigation.

Why now?  Blackberry has been around for about fifteen years, and has always worked in the same way.  I can only speculate here, but there are several possibilities.  Some national governments may only be waking up to the potential of an independent international data network as a threat to their hegemony over their citizens.  Of course, monitoring can also be a crime-fighting tool, much like wiretaps.  In some cases, these governments may have perfected monitoring through the wireless carrier, only to realize that BlackBerry data wasn’t part of that package.

I would prefer not having my wireless data communications subject to monitoring, although I can think of circumstances where it may be a good thing.  However, I can’t help but think there is a less-intrusive way of serving legitimate law enforcement needs than intercepting emails and text messages.

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