United Arab Emirates Arrests Activists, Bans BlackBerry Services

On July 29th, Reporters Sans Frontiers reported that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) arrested one BlackBerry user, detained another, and are pursuing five activists. The activists were planning a protest via BlackBerry Messenger against the increasing price of gasoline, and, unable to get a special permit from security forces for the protest, the protestors called off their peaceful demo so as not to break the law. Despite this, authorities pursued them; they tracked down and interrogated the organizer through his BlackBerry PIN ("Saud"), and detained 18-year old BBM user Badr Ali Saiwad Al Dhohori on the 15th of July.

In the wake of these arrests, the UAE announced today that it will suspend BlackBerry Services to clients starting October 11th, citing security concerns. This includes BlackBerry messenger, e-mail, and web browsing services.

BlackBerry as a National Security Threat?

Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) argues that the government acted in this manner because of the UAE's insecurity of being able to gain access to BlackBerry data (which is encrypted):

"Because they cannot decipher BlackBerry’s encrypted data and thereby gain accesss to its clients’ personal data, the security forces have decided to intimidate users in order to combat their potential for disseminating information."

BlackBerrys, which were introduced to the UAE in 2006, are not covered under Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) policy, which covers internet access, amongst other things. A week before the arrest of "Saud", the TRA publicly accused BlackBerry of being a potential threat to national security because "the devices operate beyong the jurisdiction of national laws and open to misuse" and user data is sent to foreign network servers. Apparently this has been a long-standing concern, since Etisalat tried to covertly put surveillance software of users' BlackBerry's in 2009, disguising it as an "upgrade...required for service enhancements".

The UAE's Restrictive Online Environment

The UAE is a generally restrictive environment for social justice activists. The government routinely monitors the press, and current media law allows for the imprisonment of journalists and publication suspension, so self-censorship is common. The Internet is also monitored; it is regulated by the TRA (Telecommunications REgulatory Authority), who produce the IAM (Internet Access Management) policy. The IAM determines what content categories ISPs should block, including pornography, and content about terrorism, gambling, learning criminal skills/hacking, and unlicensed VoIP services.

OpenNet Initiative testing for 2008/2009 showed that more U.A.E content was being censored online since the previous testing. This is most likely due to the implementation of the IAM policy by major ISPs Du and Etisalat, and the use of SmartFilter content filtering software.

In addition to the content types mentioned above, testing revealed that the UAE also censors political content, such as:

  • UAE Torture (uaetorture.com) which had videos of a UAE royal family member torturing an Afghan businessman;
  • SaveZackShahin (savezackshahin.com), an online campaign calling for release of U.S. citizen Zack Shahin;
  • UAE arab blog Mujarad Ensan because of content that was critical of the socioeconomic situation in the UAE; and
  • secularislam.org for having non-normative views of islam

They have in the past also blocked access to social networking websites, such as LiveJournal, YouTube, Skype, MetaCafe, Myspace, and Flickr (to which access is still blocked).

Read the full country profile.

Emirati Netizens Under Threat

The UAE BlackBerry arrests are not surprising, considering both the online environment that exists in the country, and because the UAE has in the past arrested people for their online activities. Khaled El Asli and Mohammed Rashed Al-Sohhi were both arrested in in 2007 because of their association to majan.net; Asli was sentenced to one year in prison for defaming a local official on the website, and the site was pulled down by authorities. The government has also placed some Internet cafes under investigation for allowing their users to use VoIP services.

Part of Global Trend

In the US a landmark law was passed this month allowing smartphone users to modify their product in any way they desire. Amongst other things, this law is significant because it suggests that what you do with your phone, and how you use it, is up to you.

Not all governments feel this way, and the UAE is not the only government to react strongly to BlackBerry. Their actions are part of a regional trend in the South that sees BlackBerries as standing in the way of government surveillance of its users - The Indian government has demand that Research In Motion (the company that owns BlackBerry) set up a proxy server in the country so security agencies can monitor e-traffic. Meanwhile Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Saudi Arabia has also suspended BBM, and Bahrain already banned users from "sharing local news...to avoid confusion and chaos" on April 9th of this year.