BlackBerry Phones Safe in Asia

Rest easy, Asian businessmen, it doesn't look likely that many – or even any -- governments will follow the lead of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to ban BlackBerry smartphone services, according to a survey across the region. Given the ubiquity and popularity of the devices on the part of businessmen and government leaders as well, it would probably be impossible.

Unlike the iPhone and other smartphones, which typically send data through open networks, the BlackBerry uses sophisticated encryption devices run through their Canadian servers that not only raise security concerns over potential terrorists but also keep governments from listening in both to circumscribe freedom of speech and to thwart corruption. The customer creates his own security key and there appears no way for eavesdroppers to break into the system. The Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion, which manufacturers the devices, said it can't even read user transmissions.

"BlackBerry's security model is very different from others," said Kevin Mahaffey of Lookout mobile security. "It is end-to-end and the encryption is so strong nobody knows how to monitor it."

An official with Indonesia's Telecommunications Regulatory Body started the fuss in Jakarta on Wednesday, telling reporters a ban was being considered for services such as BlackBerry Messenger, email and Internet access after announcements by India and Saudi Arabia that they planned to restrict access because of security concerns. Saudi Arabian communications officials have given Research in Motion until Friday to knuckle under.

"We share the same concerns as those countries," said Heru Sutadi, a member of the agency. "This is about our national security."

However, on Thursday the government hastily backed away from any such plan, with Communications Ministry spokesman Gatot Dewa Broto telling reporters that the government had only requested Research in Motion open a "data center" in Indonesia so that the data didn't have to be routed through Canada, where the company's encrypted servers are based.

A statement on the communication ministry's Web site said "so far" it had "no plan to apply a similar policy to the UAE because "we don't see the urgency."

The statement noted that Indonesia had temporarily blocked imports of new BlackBerry models in 2009 after RIM rejected requests to open the service center.

In addition to its popularity as a technology marvel, the BlackBerry's encryption system keeps prying eyes away from sensitive company machinations. One company executive for an unnamed conglomerate told Asia Sentinel that after authorities had arrested one of their top officials on bribery charges, the conglomerate switched all of its communications devices to BlackBerry smartphones to hide their traffic from government investigators. It is unknown how many companies across the region have followed that path.

In Malaysia, an aide to a top United Malays National Organization politician said no ban would be possible in the country because the devices are ubiquitous and neither UMNO nor opposition leaders would be likely to give them up themselves or order anybody else to do so. Besides, he said, most search engines and communications companies already provide information on demand to Interpol, governments and the Malaysian Ancti-Corruption Commission.

Thailand, where authorities monitor the Internet intensively and have banned as many as 13,000 websites for perceived or actual threats to government security, would seem a natural to seek to either ban BlackBerry devices or demand access to their encryption codes. But so far, said a source in Bangkok, "I actually don't think it will happen here, mostly because the yellow shirts and all the upper classes here love their BlackBerries and chat on messenger all day long. So the government may face a backlash if it tries to do anything. Anything is possible i suppose, but haven't seen anything concrete yet.

That kind of backlash among the moneyed and politically wired classes is probably the best insurance against such a ban. Indeed, Research in Motion Chief Technology Officer David Yach told Bloomberg that governments were unlikely to follow through on their threats because state officials themselves depended heavily on the BlackBerry.

"I believe they'll have trouble pulling the trigger to shut down BlackBerry. Most governments in the world rely on BlackBerry," Yach said.

Nonetheless, Research In Motion faces mounting demands from governments around the world for access to its encryption system on national security grounds. In India and the Gulf states, as many as 2 million users could be cut off if authorities go through with their threat. India, a fast-growing market for mobile communications, is nonetheless, deeply concerned about secret communications in the wake of a November, 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai which took nearly 200 lives as gunmen invaded the sprawling city from Pakistan and caught officials unprepared, as well as other attacks that have originated both inside and outside the country.

"We are very clear that any BlackBerry service that cannot be fully intercepted must be discontinued," an unnamed security official told Bloomberg. "Offering access to data is part of the telecom licensing guidelines and has to be adhered to."

Research in Motion apparently has proposed to share some details but security services are demanding full access because of concerns that terrorists could use them to plan attacks.

An Indian government source said that RIM had proposed to share some details of its BlackBerry services but security agencies were demanding full access to a messaging service it fears could be misused by militants.

With additional reporting from Jakarta Globe