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LEBANON: Government considers suspending BlackBerry services over security concerns

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Lebanon could be the next country in the Middle East to suspend certain BlackBerry smart phone services over security concerns if the government cannot reach a compromise with the Canada-based manufacturer, Research In Motion (RIM).

Concerns stem from BlackBerry's famously tight encryption, which prevents state intelligence agencies and even RIM itself from accessing user data easily.

"Let me say that what we ask for in Lebanon will be no different than what the U.S. has asked for in the past and continues to ask for," Imad Hoballah, chair of the government's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, told Babylon & Beyond.

"RIM has made concessions to the U.S., the UK, Russia and eventually they have to give in to some of the countries depending on the business propositions made. We would be happy with whatever information they have made available to the U.S.," he added.

At this point it is unclear what arrangements BlackBerry has made with specific governments, but co-chief executive of RIM, Michael Lazaridis, told the Wall Street Journal this week that although his company would not compromise consumers' security, it would cooperate with authorities if handed a court order.

"I would give them the encrypted stream," he said. "It would have to be like a wiretap."

Lazaridis also accused certain governments of targeting BlackBerry in order to score political points, an accusation Hoballah dismissed, adding that all service providers are under review in light of the recent slew of arrests of alleged Israeli spies working in the Lebanese telecommunications sector.

"We’re not going to stop at BlackBerry; our review of services in Lebanon as stated is based on infiltrations of Lebanese networks," he said. "Our review of services from a security point of view ... is not limited to BlackBerry," he added, declining to be get more specific.

According to the Lebanese Ministry of Telecommunications, about 60,000 BlackBerry users in Lebanon could be affected.

One possible solution, according to Beirut-based telecommunications expert Riad Bahsoun, would be to allow Lebanon to set up its own server that would monitor all data going in and out of Lebanon.

"Ultimately, it should not be a difficult, technology-wise, for any country to have its own server," he said.

"What is displeasing here is that this data is hosted in the server of the company that sells the equipment," which makes BlackBerry unique among similar products, he added.

BlackBerry's secure messaging has made it a corporate favorite, but rankled governments in emerging markets, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which recently announced a ban on services such as messaging and Web surfing, which they say pose a security risk.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially expressed "disappointment" in the UAE's decision but later said that BlackBerry security concerns were "legitimate" and has promised that the U.S. will attempt to mediate a solution.

So far, RIM has not given any indication it will compromise, despite losing an estimated $2.3 billion in value since the bans were announced.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: BlackBerry services may soon be suspended in Lebanon. Credit: Joseph Eid /  AFP

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