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United Arab Emirates to block key features on BlackBerrys

By Adam Schreck
Monday, August 2, 2010; A08

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -- Citing national security concerns, the United Arab Emirates said Sunday that it will block key features on BlackBerry smartphones because the devices operate beyond the government's ability to monitor. An official in neighboring Saudi Arabia indicated that it will follow suit.

The decision could prevent hundreds of thousands of users in the UAE from accessing e-mail and the Web on their devices starting Oct. 11, putting the Middle Eastern federation's reputation as a business-friendly commercial and tourism hub at risk.

BlackBerry transmissions are encrypted and routed overseas, and the measure could be motivated in part by government fears that the messaging system might be exploited by terrorists or other criminals who cannot be monitored by local authorities.

However, analysts and activists also see it as an attempt to more tightly control the flow of information in the conservative country, a U.S. ally that is home to the Persian Gulf business capital Dubai and the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi.

This isn't the first time BlackBerry and UAE officials have had a run-in over security and the popular handsets, a fixture in professionals' pockets and purses the world over.

Just over a year ago, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion criticized a directive by the UAE's state-owned mobile operator Etisalat that told the company's more than 145,000 BlackBerry users to install software described as an "upgrade . . . required for service enhancements." RIM said tests showed that the update was actually spy software that could allow outsiders to access private information on the phones. It strongly distanced itself from Etisalat's decision and provided instructions for users to remove the software.

Within hours of the UAE's decision to block BlackBerry services, a Saudi telecommunications official said the desert kingdom would begin blocking the BlackBerry messaging service starting later this month. The Saudi official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, said the country's telecommunications regulator would issue a statement on the move soon.

Ali Mohammed of Saudi Telecom, however, said the company had "not received any instructions about BlackBerry from the ministry."

As in Saudi Arabia, government censors in the UAE routinely block access to Web sites and other media deemed to carry content that runs contrary to the country's conservative Islamic values or that could stoke political unrest.

It was unclear whether the UAE ban would affect only local users or foreign visitors with roaming services as well.

The government said it is targeting the BlackBerry, and not other phones that can access e-mail and the Web, because the devices are the only phones in the country that automatically send users' data to servers overseas.

A RIM spokeswoman said the Canadian company had no immediate comment.

-- Associated Press

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