DATELINE JLB'S BLACKBERRY STORM -- Threats by the Saudi and United Arab Emirates governments to cut off access to the BlackBerry network were ignored by U.S. media this week. RIM -- the Canadian company which sells the "smart phones" and operates the computer servers through which billions of emails and other communications flow every day -- faced the loss of huge markets.
The Saudis suddenly imposed a ban on BlackBerry, causing about 700,000 users to lose emailing ability. The UAE threatened an October 11 ban because, as the Financial Times reports, the BlackBerry network was "causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions."
Pi -- the mathematical constant that enables us to compute the dimensions of a circle -- is an irrational number. It is not a ratio of a to b, but a constant that flows beyond the decimal point to infinity without repeating itself. BlackBerrys are an inconstant force that the Muslim nations want to reduce to a finite one they can control.
The Saudis may have settled the dispute with RIM in a deal to have a new server in-country, apparently to enable the government easier interception of communications. Indonesia, Lebanon, India and other nations are considering bans. China worked out a deal last year, similar to the reported Saudi deal.
But that's not the story. It's not about an Arab abhorrence of modern technology, or some effort to grab a piece of the financial pie. It's about despots straining to stay in power over increasingly free people. It is the social repercussions of free speech they fear.
About five years ago, talking with one of the Pentagon's China experts, I mused that Communist China couldn't become a free nation because the people lacked the power to overthrow their oppressors.
"No," he told me. "And this is what will bring freedom to the Chinese." He held up his cell phone. Any government that can't control the communication of ideas and events, he said, cannot maintain the power that is necessary to oppress its people. Which is why the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are so desperate to limit or disable entirely their peoples' access to the BlackBerry network.
Love them or hate them, today's "smart phones" are political devices. We jaded political types complain (actually, brag) to each other about the number of emails and cell calls we get every day, but we can't function without them. The facts that these personal communication devices are so common, carrying so many billions of conversations each day -- and that the BlackBerry is designed to secure its communications against all but the most expert hackers, enables privacy that protects the users. And in privacy there is freedom for those who fear their governments.
With the addition of social networking websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and the like, each BlackBerry (or iPhone or Palm or Droid or whatever) becomes a portable publisher. You can report (as I have) on events in real time via Twitter, albeit one sentence at a time, and reach tens of thousands instantly. More, if your readers resend to their readers, which they often do.
If Jefferson, Madison, and Paine had BlackBerrys, the American Revolution would have begun years earlier. And, yes, the Declaration of Independence would have probably been reduced to, "Yo, Brit dudes: you're outa here." But what they rob us of in scholarly style and historic character, they offset with immediacy and broad reach. (The Declaration and "Common Sense" could have been written in full and published as e-mail attachments. It's not parchment, but they would have been read sooner by more people.)
Its security, coupled with that reach and immediacy, makes the BlackBerry a political force, much more so than its unsecure competitors.
Security against terrorism is the alleged concern driving the governments, even India's, to try to force RIM to give them the computer codes necessary to monitor all communications. RIM denies it has them. Last year, the UAE demanded that RIM distribute to its users a program that would embed in the BlackBerrys to allow easier monitoring. But, according to the expert I consult with on these matters, the UAE add was "spyware." It would have allowed the UAE government to get into the system (perhaps globally, not just for its own nation's users) and capture everything from your stored telephone contacts to your e-mails. RIM, as it should have, refused.
And it must continue to do so. Any government that wants to monitor BlackBerry communications can do so if they invest enough in technology and personnel to do it. But in refusing to give them the keys to the BlackBerry kingdom, RIM is forcing them to make choices and establish priorities.
If a government really wants to focus its intelligence gathering on terrorist communications -- as ours has through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- it can. Under FISA, any innocent conversations that are intercepted have to be ignored and any recording or documentation of them must be destroyed. By adopting that model, the despots would not have total -- make that totalitarian -- ability to limit free speech and punish or prevent the "social repercussions" the UAE wants to block. India, especially vulnerable to Pakistan-based terror networks, has no reason to not adopt our model.
For all those who want political freedom, there are tools to protect it on your BlackBerry. If you're visiting a country that isn't free (such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or China) you should take precautions to maintain your privacy. According to my expert, there are open-sourced tools available -- such as the "Kisses" software -- to detect and remove spyware from your BlackBerry. Because this software is open-sourced, the bad guys already must have it, so there's no reason not to tell everyone about it. (Kisses is distributed for free. Check it out here. I did. In my expert's view, it works and that's good enough for me.)
Technology moves faster than despotism. BlackBerry is leading the way. Maybe, someday, all those annoying iPhone users will stop insisting on showing us the latest "app" that is cooler than anything on our BlackBerrys. I have more political freedom on my secure BlackBerry than is provided by the latest "app" that buys movie tickets for me.
Kisses for my BlackBerry? You bet. And Twitter, Facebook, and all the political force they allow me to create.
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