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Backdoors for Spies in Mobile Devices

August 24, 2010

There’s been a lot of controversy over this summer about the threats made to several large western mobile technology providers mainly by Asian and Middle-Eastern governments to ban their products and services unless they made it easier for their internal intelligence services and political police to access the accounts of users. The arguments actually started way back in 2008 in India, when the country’s Home Ministry demanded access to all communications made through Research in Motion’s (RIM) famous Blackberry smartphone, which was starting to spread rapidly in the country’s business community. Not much came of this beyond RIM agreeing in principle to the demand. Then over this summer, the issue flared up again, both in India and most strongly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. RIM’s data servers were located outside the countries and the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said that RIM was providing an illegal service which was “causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions”. Both countries have notorious internal police and employ torture against political opponents.RIM initially defended its encrypted services and its commitment to the privacy of its users in a full statement issued at the beginning of August. However, they soon caved in when they realised that this could cause a cascade of bans across the Middle-East, India and beyond and promised to place a data server in both nations, and now India is once again increasing the pressure on RIM to do the same for its internal security services. So instead of a cascade of bans, we now have a massive increase in corporate-facilitated state surveillance. It’s Google and China all over again, but RIM put up even less of a fight.

However, a lot of people in these increasingly intrusive and often authoritarian regimes are not happy with the new accord between states and technology-providers, and this may yet prove more powerful than what states want. In Iran, Isa Saharkhiz, a leading dissident journalist and member of the anti-government Green Movement is suing another manufacturer, Nokia Siemens Networks, in a US court for providing the Iranian regime with the means to monitor its mobile networks. NSN have washed their hand of this, saying it isn’t their fault what the Iranian government does with the technology, and insist that they have to provide “a lawful interception capability”, comparing this to the United States and Europe, and claiming that standardisation of their devices means that “it is unrealistic to demand… that wireless communications systems based on global technology standards be sold without that capability.”

There is an interesting point buried in all of this, which is that the same backdoors built into western communications systems (and long before 9/11 came along too) are now being exploited by countries with even fewer scruples about using this information to unjustly imprison and torture political opponents. But the companies concerned still have moral choices to make, they have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) which is not simply a superficial agreement with anyone who shouts ‘security’ but a duty to their customers and to the human community. Whatever they say, they are making a conscious choice to make it easier for violent and oppressive regimes to operate. This cannot be shrugged off by blaming it on ‘standards’ (especially in an era of the supposed personal service and ‘mass customization’ of which the very same companies boast), and if they are going to claim adherence to ‘standards’, what about those most important standards of all, as stated clearly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12 of which states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence,” and in Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

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