It is a worrying development that a government anywhere in the world today is willing to threaten to shut down mobile email services like BlackBerry if the company in question does not hand over customer data.
The threat by Saudi Arabia to cut off Research In Motion’s BlackBerry service will surely mean that other systems, from iPhone to Windows Mobile, are also under threat. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also threatened to shut the service down in October.
But most seriously at issue is the question of user privacy. This issue initially arose last year when the region’s top mobile carrier Etisalat tried to sneak spyware onto mobile users’ devices that would allow the government there to monitor email messages purportedly in the interest of national security.
The BlackBerry maker responded by putting technology in place that encrypted all email traffic.
RIM, for its part, has refused to back down and the founder and co-chief executive of RIM Mike Lazardis told the New York Times newspaper that he and his company will not compromise or endanger its relationships with customers, which include major companies and law enforcement agencies.
He denied that his company has already granted concessions to governments in China and India.
Lazardis added that if he were to order the shutting down of encryption on wireless data traffic it would also mean shutting it down for key services like e-commerce, teleconferencing and electronic money transfers.
The fear is that other countries around the world with pluralistic political regimes may make the same threats as UAE and Saudi Arabia.
But this is a problem facing even the most open of economies. In Ireland, for example, the Government last year passed the controversial Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009. That Bill transposes into law the controversial EU Data Retention Directive passed in the European Parliament in 2006, which will enable a member of An Garda Síochána not below the rank of chief superintendent to instruct an ISP to hand over data as part of a criminal investigation.
The integrity of all wireless communications – from email to e-commerce – could be a political hot potato for years to come.