Saudis hold breath on BlackBerry ban

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The Independent Tech

Hundreds of thousands of BlackBerry users were Monday awaiting a decision by the Saudi regulator on banning the handset's messenger service following tests aimed at allaying security concerns.

The telecoms watchdog had postponed a ban due to come into force on Friday, allowing time until Monday evening to test suggested technical solutions that would give authorities access to BlackBerry's encrypted data.

More 700,000 people subscribe to BlackBerry in the kingdom, most reportedly purchasing the device for personal use. But the birthplace of Al-Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, fears the smartphone could jeopardise its security.

Among the reported solutions to avert a cut of the key BlackBerry messenger service is the installation of a local server that would be accessible to authorities, instead of having data going directly to the maker's servers in Canada.

Local daily Okaz quoted Monday a technical source at one of the kingdom's three mobile phone companies as saying that the "tests on the server and requested programmes ... have been successful."

The quoted official considered last week's problems over the service's fate "a summer's cloud" that has dissipated.

But another official at a telecommunications provider was not as certain.

"We have not received any response from the concerned authorities until now," the official told AFP, requesting not to be named.

The kingdom's Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) has remained mum since Saturday, when it gave the three providers a 48-hour grace period to seek solutions, while a deal with the BlackBerry company, Research in Motion, appeared imminent.

An official at a mobile phone company had said Saturday that a deal between CITC and RIM was "virtually" sealed.

The CITC had announced that it had ordered mobile providers to block key BlackBerry services from August 6 or face a 1.3-million-dollar fine.

The regulator had said the suspension was due to the fact that "the way BlackBerry services are provided currently does not meet the regulatory criteria of the commission and the licensing conditions."

The Saudi decision came hot on the heels of an announcement by the telecoms authority in the United Arab Emirates to ban BlackBerry messenger, emails and web browsing from October 11, highlighting concerns by certain governments over their inability to decipher the device's encrypted messages.

BlackBerry users were desperately hoping the service would be maintained.

"We don't care if the service will be monitored, as long as it is not cut," said a reader posting his comments on Okaz's website.

"Thousand trillion congratulations to the lovers of BlackBerry over this delightful news," wrote another.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Kuwait said on Sunday it had no plans to follow the example of Saudi Arabia or the UAE, but said it was waiting to see the outcome of the tested exits.

"At the moment, I can tell you that there is no intention to stop BlackBerry services in Kuwait," Communications Minister Mohammad al-Baseeri said.

"We are in direct and indirect talks, and contact, with Saudi Arabia, UAE and the BlackBerry maker to follow up on the solutions presented by the company."

Bahrain and Oman have said they oppose a ban on BlackBerry, a favourite tool of business travellers, while Lebanon, a frontline state with Israel, has yet to reach a decision despite its security concerns.

Outside the Arab world, India is mulling a ban and Indonesia is not ruling out the option, although on Thursday it denied that the world's largest Muslim country was considering a suspension of BlackBerry services.

RIM had insisted that it would not compromise its relationship with its clients.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped into the fray last week saying that Washington would soon hold talks with the UAE and other countries about the issue.

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