Friday, August 13, 2010

The BlackBerry Ban and the "Right of Free Use"...

Two weeks ago, when the United Arab Emirates declared that they would be banning all BlackBerries in their country unless the device's maker, Research In Motion (RIM), would grant that foreign government access to encrypted e-mails sent and received by BlackBerry users, an uproar rightfully ensued. The UAE, soon followed by Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and India, all argued that they needed to be able to monitor people's messages in the interests of national security.

RIM ought to be applauded for holding strong and maintaining even some semblance of user privacy rights.

As Hillary Clinton and the U.S. State Department immediately made clear, BlackBerry bans violate a "right of free use". Furthermore, such bans would only be a first step in a process that would erode privacy everywhere. As CNN reported, if the UAE ban holds up, you can expect even more foreign governments to feel emboldened and quickly follow suit.

Now, to be certain, the issue is more complex than many reactionaries in cyberspace are giving it credit. There are legitimate security concerns for which BlackBerry encryption has become an obstacle. As Richard Falkenrath, a former U.S. deputy homeland security advisor, wrote in an op-ed, among American law enforcement investigators and intelligence officers, the Emirates’ decision met with approval, admiration and perhaps even a touch of envy. The men and women who make a living hunting terrorists, smugglers, and human traffickers rely on exactly this type of electronic surveillance to keep the rest of us safe.

In fact, in the United States, telecommunications providers are generally required to provide a mechanism for such access by the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and related regulations issued by the FCC. As a general principle, information-service providers here must provide a means for federal agencies, usually the F.B.I., "to view the ostensibly private data of their subscribers when lawfully ordered to do so".

However, the problem with the current BlackBerry ban is that it's highly questionable, to put it lightly, whether hunting terrorists is the main objective for the countries involved. While it shouldn't entirely be dismissed, it's far more likely that, say, the government of China is interested in using BlackBerry monitoring to crack down on its citizens' free speech rights than it is in fighting Bin Laden. And even when intentions are genuine, putting such an insecure architecture in place makes it ripe for future abuse.

In other words, there would be no putting the genie back in bottle. And the trust level for the authoritarian governments in question is hardly inspiring.

This is the battle that's defining our time. National governments are struggling to retain control in an increasingly borderless internet-enabled world, and privacy is frequently in conflict with security. RIM has thus far acted nobly in defiance of the BlackBerry ban, just as Google similarly held out against China a few months ago, but ultimately this battle is still in its early stage, and the end-result will be nothing less than a re-determination of what the internet itself will be.


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