RIM Negotiations Reflect Global Privacy Concerns

Saudi Arabia permitted BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion Ltd. to continue its messaging service, which was due to be shut off Monday at midnight.

This is the second deadline that BlackBerry has wriggled by, but analysts say the negotiations are likely drawing to a close as there is no new deadline set.

The talks between the two have momentarily taken the spotlight of an ongoing dispute between governments and cell phone providers—a dispute that transcends several telecom technologies and the countries quickly adapting them.

For example, the Indian Government, who still feel the reverberations of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, have recently threatened to shut off BlackBerry service too, saying that RIM’s sophisticated encryption makes it too difficult to breach terrorist networks operating via mobile phone. The Mumbai attacks were coordinated almost entirely by cell phone and e-mail.

Similar concerns have been voiced in Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates; especially because BlackBerry servers are located in Canada, which leaves them out of the jurisdiction of the countries’ laws.

The tug, essentially, is one between privacy and security, where governments and law enforcement say that access to sensitive data like messaging, call logs and even GPS location is necessary for the adequate protection of their citizens.

And it’s not only felt in the East either.

In late June 2010 the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony about advanced cell phone tracking systems, information gathering techniques used by law enforcement, and an outdated law that has permitted, in several occasions, abuse of the system.

The Electronic Communications Act of 1986 determines the law in matters of cell phone and law enforcement in the U.S., however, it hasn’t been updated since its inception, meaning that the government is relying on precedent that was set when cell phones were the size of a strong man’s bicep.

In the digital world of today, cell phones transmit users’ locations roughly every seven seconds, several companies provide services for cell-phone owners to track their spouses, and billions of pieces of data rocket across networks, become harbored in cloud services or databases and are ready to be snatched by law enforcement at any moment and with little legislative regulation.

One of the main pieces of discussion in the hearings was the disconnect between the EPCA and the Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement Act. Through loop holes in these Acts, law enforcement officers have been able to monitor the cell phones of people whom they suspect of crimes without obtaining a warrant.

Privacy advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say the ease with which law enforcement circumvent these warrants is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

“Our failure to bring privacy law into the 21st century opens the door for a whole new realm of abuse, and long experience suggests that governments including our own are seldom able to resist making use of power,” writes Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

Congress is yet to pass ruling concerning cell-phone tracking.

For Canadian-based RIM, the negotiations with Saudi Arabia could yield any number of results.

Details are still hidden because RIM officials have been unwilling to comment in the media.

The governments of the Eastern countries, who are battling domestic terrorism, maintain that access to the encrypted messages is vital and also accuse RIM of a double standard, saying the company allows developed democracies access to the same information to which they, themselves, are denied.

It’s somewhat murky just what information BlackBerry does provide governments when asked, but “legal intercepts” are typically permitted and there are doubts that BlackBerry decrypts confidential information.

What is certain is that the world—Eastern and Western countries alike—will be watching the outcome in Saudi Arabia.