You may have seen in the news over the last few weeks a lot of chatter from Saudi Arabia (and lately India) regarding the use of BlackBerry mobile phone handsets in their respective countries.  The question has to be asked, why does the Saudi government feel it necessary to consider tighter controls on the use of BlackBerrys?  It all boils down to privacy.

Research in Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerrys, much like any modern smartphone, can send and receive emails.  Unlike other devices (the iPhone for example) when a a BlackBerry retrieves email, it is not retrieving them directly from the email provider, instead the BlackBerry is obtaining its new email from the BlackBerry server.  This has the advantage of taking less time, as the emails can be compressed, taking up less space, and therefore taking less time to send. It all so allows RIM to offer other services direct to the handset, like calendar and instant messaging. Anyone who has used a BlackBerry will attest to the fact that this is a great idea, offering speed and rich functionality.

In order to provide an enterprise-level service for its corporate customers, RIM has to ensure that all the emails and other data stored on its BlackBerry servers is secure.  To do this, they encrypt it, and this is what the Saudi and other governments have an issue with.  With the data encrypted, they can’t look at it.

What does this mean for you?

The short answer is, not a lot. Although from September 1st RIM are allowing the Saudi and other governments a limited amount of access to its secure data, this does not mean that you are being ‘snooped’ on.  The government cannot see the full text of your emails or audio recordings of your phone calls.  Although it is not known exactly what level of access governments have, it is reasonable to assume that at most they are able to audit the send/receive trail of emails, nothing more.  In a recent press release RIM commented that “RIM cannot accommodate any request for a copy of a customer’s encryption key, since at no time does RIM, or any wireless network operator or any third party, ever possess a copy of the key.  This means that customers of the BlackBerry enterprise solution can maintain confidence in the integrity of the security architecture without fear of compromise.”  In essence, even if RIM wanted to give governments full access to your email and IM logs, they cant.  You’re safe.

What can I do to protect myself?

First, you will want to back up your phone’s data, and wipe the handset of all your personal information, if you lose your phone.  I recommend Lookout Mobile Security by Lookout : http://appworld.blackberry.com/webstore/content/8469

It’s available for BlackBerry, and Android and can be obtained from the App Store on the device.   Lookout securely creates a backup of your data (stored on Lookout’s US servers).  This allows you to restore your email, contacts, and other information if you get a new handset.   Lookout also allows you to locate your phone, and remotely wipe it of all your data if you so chose.  This renders it useless to any would be thief.

iPhone users opt for the $99 per year .Mac service, that offers similar functions.

Next month, tips on how you can secure yourself online, while using your laptop/desktop.

Adam Brown, Technical Advisor