BlackBerry services will be blocked for foreign visitors using roaming too, says UAE regulator

By Adam Schreck, AP
Monday, August 2, 2010

UAE says BlackBerry ban will affect visitors too

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates’ looming crackdown on BlackBerry services will extend to foreign visitors using roaming, putting the government’s concerns over the smart phones in direct conflict its ambitions to be a business and tourism haven.

The Emirates’ telecoms regulator said Monday that travelers to the city-state of Dubai and the important oil industry center of Abu Dhabi will — like the 500,000 local subscribers — will have to do without BlackBerry e-mail, messaging and Web services starting in October.

Emirati authorities say the ban is based on security concerns because BlackBerry data is automatically shipped to company computers abroad, where it is stored and difficult for local authorities to monitor for illegal activity or abuse. Critics of the crackdown say it is also a way for the country’s conservative government to further control content they deem politically or morally objectionable.

About 100,000 travelers pass through Dubai’s airport every day, making it the busiest in the Middle East. The new restrictions could leave time-pressed business travelers hurrying through, many of them changing planes for other destinations, without access to their e-mail or the Web.

“I think it’s a very big step back. All developed countries in the world have it. Why should we not?” said Emirati BlackBerry user Maisoon al-Iskandarani, 24, who works at an international bank in Dubai. “How are you going to stay in touch with your clients and colleagues?”

Device maker Research in Motion Ltd. said it “respects both the regulatory requirements of government and the security and privacy needs of corporations and consumers,” but does not disclose details of discussions with regulators in any of the more than 175 countries where it operates. The company defended its security system as “widely accepted by security conscious customers and governments around the world.”

The UAE contends some BlackBerry features operate outside the country’s laws, “causing judicial, social and national security concerns.” At the heart of their concerns is the way the devices handle data, which is encrypted and routed through RIM’s servers overseas. Analysts say that makes messages sent by BlackBerry far more difficult, if not impossible, for authorities to monitor than data which passes solely through domestic computers.

The smart phones enjoy a following not only among the region’s professionals, but also among tech-savvy youth who see their relatively secure communication channels as a way to avoid unwanted government attention.

The Telecommunication Regulatory Authority had left the question of phones run by foreign operators unanswered in announcing the ban, which is due to take effect Oct. 11.

But in an e-mailed response to questions from The Associated Press, the regulator said the service suspension would apply to all users in the country, including visitors using roaming services on foreign BlackBerry phones.

“Roaming for BlackBerry Messenger, BlackBerry e-mail and BlackBerry Web browsing will also be suspended,” the TRA said in its unsigned e-mail. “They won’t be able to use the mentioned services in (the) UAE as it’s suspended (in) the country.”

That would put BlackBerry service out of reach for business travelers and others passing through the busy Mideast airport hub of Dubai, which handled 40.9 million passengers last year.

Dubai is a major commercial center, hosting the Mideast’s biggest port, and has emerged as the region’s financial capital and a popular tourist destination.

Its image as an easy place to do business has been tarnished, however, by a credit crisis that has left the emirate more than $100 billion in debt. Residents fear the BlackBerry crackdown won’t help.

“Dubai as it is doesn’t have a good reputation right now. Do you really want to add to that, so people say ‘even technology-wise they’re behind?’” al-Iskandarani said. “If anything, they should bring in extra services.”

The UAE’s other six emirates increasingly rely on foreign visitors too. The UAE federation’s capital Abu Dhabi, while less well-known abroad than its flashier neighboring emirate Dubai, is building ties with multinational firms, actively promoting tourism and investing heavily in its own aviation sector.

Smaller emirates, such as Ras al-Khaimah in the north of the country, are also trying to entice foreign businesses to set up shop.

Emirati regulators say they decided to suspend the BlackBerry until they can find “an acceptable solution” that addresses the government’s concerns — suggesting a deal could still be reached before the ban goes into effect.

“We will reconsider if a solution in line with UAE telecommunications has been provided,” the regulator said in its e-mailed response to questions Monday.

The UAE has singled out BlackBerry devices for scrutiny before.

Last year, RIM criticized a directive by the UAE state-owned mobile operator Etisalat telling the company’s BlackBerry users to install software described as a service upgrade. Tests showed the download actually installed spy software on users’ phones that could allow authorities to access private information stored on the handsets. It strongly distanced itself from Etisalat’s decision and told users how to remove the software.

Telecommunication officials in Saudi Arabia have also said they are planning to curtail use of the BlackBerry messaging service, but not other services on the phones. Other countries, including India and the Gulf state of Bahrain, have also raised concerns about BlackBerry messaging features, but have not blocked them outright.

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