RIM carries Torch for BlackBerry 6; security wins

Tuesday’s launch of the BlackBerry 6 OS, Research In Motion’s new flagship operating system and accompanying hero device – the Torch – was overshadowed by ongoing privacy concerns over the RIM network in the Middle East and India.

The Canadian vendor unleashed its latest and greatest software platform, designed to embrace and extend all the features now popularised by Apple and Android. BlackBerry 6 makes the most of a hard keyboard and a touchscreen interface with lots of familiar features including multiple desktops, enhanced multimedia capabilities – music, movies and images as well as social networking – and a browser based on Webkit.

RIM made much of its new Java-based SD, which supports the fresh new look in the BlackBerry 6 user interface with pre-built elements including contextual menus, tables, lists, inertial scrolling, activity progress indicators, pane managers, tool bars, title bars and sub menus as well as HTML5 and location elements.

The first device to use the new OS is the Torch 9800, available on AT&T’s network in the US from August 12, for $199 with a two year service plan. In a slider form factor the handset is making the most of its functionality by packing a hard keypad as well as a full touchscreen.

But over in the Middle East and India, arguments are rumbling on about RIM’s security and whether the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and India can get access to data transmitted over RIM’s network in their respective countries.

The UAE’s decision to ban some functions of the BlackBerry from October 11, citing security risks, reflects concern among some governments that the BlackBerry service does not allow them to monitor data traffic sent and received by BlackBerry users, and that this data is handled and stored offshore out of government control.

The BlackBerry architecture relies on dedicated data centres which handle all BlackBerry data traffic over a secure, encrypted connection between the NOC and the handset. As Ovum analyst Tim Renowden points out, some governments are uncomfortable with the solution because they have little or no visibility into BlackBerry data traffic, and are concerned that BlackBerry handsets may be used for criminal purposes.

“The difficulty for RIM is that security has been a key selling point for BlackBerry and acquiescing to government demands would significantly undermine its security credentials, particularly with business and public sector customers. There are legitimate reasons for wanting data encryption and privacy – and there is a concern that if RIM compromises with one government then others will demand the same access,” Renowden said.

The proposed ban on BlackBerry services in the UAE could prove to be disruptive and costly for the many users of the devices in the country, as well as for local telecom operators. Informa Telecoms & Media estimates that there are about 750,000 BlackBerrys in use in the country at present and mobile data used most notably on BlackBerry services represents one of the most important growth areas for Etisalat and Du. So a ban would end RIM’s business in the UAE, where it has been enjoying strong growth.

However, Informa analyst Matthew Reed said that the schedule for implementation leaves time for RIM and the UAE authorities to reach agreement and avert a ban as both parties are likely to be keen to avoid such an implementation.

However, RIM looks like it’s sticking to its guns. In a statement released Wednesday morning, the firm said it has spent over a decade building a strong security architecture and asserts that: “There is only one BlackBerry enterprise solution available to our customers around the world and it remains unchanged in all of the markets we operate in. RIM cooperates with all governments with a consistent standard and the same degree of respect. Any claims that we provide, or have ever provided, something unique to the government of one country that we have not offered to the governments of all countries, are unfounded.”

As Ovum’s Renowden notes, this argument is part of a wider debate around government monitoring and filtering of telecommunications and the internet, with deep implications for privacy – both personal and corporate, freedom of speech and national security. As a result RIM looks likely maintain its current stance and avoid damage to its reputation in the much larger North American and Western European markets

“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,” RIM said.

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