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Saudi Arabia Relents on BlackBerry Ban

Saudi Arabia has agreed to let BlackBerry services continue operating in the kingdom—although it hasn’t said for how long—due to “positive developments” in its talks with Canada’s Research in Motion. Saudi Arabia had announced that BlackBerry services would be shut down this week due to security concerns raised by the devices’ encrypted communications. Despite a brief shutdown Friday, service has continued operating, reportedly while Saudi telecommunications operators test out BlackBerry server systems located within Saudi Arabia, rather than overseas in North America or the United Kingdom.

“In light of the positive developments toward addressing some of the organizational requirements by the providers, the commission decided to allow the BlackBerry Messenger service to continue,” the Communications and Information Technology Commission wrote in a brief statement.

RIM has yet to make any kind of statement on the matter, saying only that it does not reveal the content of discussion with government regulators.

It is not known if a decision to locate BlackBerry servers within Saudi Arabia also means RIM has offered some technical mechanism to access encrypted communications using BlackBerry services. Selected BlackBerry data and messaging is encrypted use paired keys to secure communications; barring computationally-intensive brute-force approaches, the only way to access the communications is with both keys, one of which is only in the possession of the BlackBerry user. However, locating servers within Saudi Arabia would make it substantially simpler for Saudi authorities to obtain message data, even if it’s encrypted, since no international procedures would have to be followed.

Saudi Arabia already operates a significant Internet control regime, blocking content and services it believes to be offensive to Islam or immoral; the kingdom also has tight controls on freedom of expression. Concern over BlackBerry services has been frames in terms of security threats from militants and terrorists having access to secure communications.

RIM’s apparent decision to locate BlackBerry servers in Saudi Arabia may pave the way for similar arrangements with other governments. The United Arab Emirates has announced a ban on BlackBerry services to go into effect in October; India, Indonesia, Lebanon, and other countries are also considering blocking BlackBerry services.

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