By Misha Glenny
Research in Motion should perhaps be both worried and proud to learn that its BlackBerry smartphone is the industry standard for drug smugglers. Interviewing narcotics exporters in Canada and Colombia a few years ago, I noticed few left home without one. Of course, it is possible that patriotism influenced the Canadian marijuana wholesalers in their choice, as RIM is based in Ontario. But my strong sense was that they, like their Colombian peers, were persuaded because BlackBerrys offered security from surveillance.
While this might pose a tricky moral dilemma for RIM's marketing department, it is hard to imagine a better endorsement for potential customers concerned about the privacy of their communications. The decision by the United Arab Emirates to insist upon easier access to RIM's network backs up the drug dealers' conviction that it is extremely hard to crack a Berry, even for powerful national security agencies.
The internet might have had its origins in similar military research institutions, but its pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s were an entertaining mixture of stoners, anarchists and academics who argued elegantly that the internet was first and foremost a liberating tool for personal and intellectual communication that not only would preclude state snooping, but would bypass the state entirely. Behind the furore over the banned BlackBerrys, it is this dream that is now quietly coming to an end.
RIM has long claimed that its business customers can be certain that encrypted e-mails routed through the company's Canadian servers cannot be accessed by interested third parties. The UAE appears to believe this and in its wake so too, apparently, do the Saudis, the Indians and other countries now demanding an end to the use of the peer-to-peer encryption at the heart of the dispute. The UAE's Telecommunications Agency put it like this: "In their current form, certain BlackBerry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national-security concerns." The meaning is clear: we cannot read messages exchanged within our borders and we believe it is our right to do so.
Washington disagrees. In response to the threatened UAE ban, due to come into force in October, a state department spokesman expressed concern about a "dangerous precedent . . . We're disappointed at the announcement. We are committed to promoting the free flow of information. It's integral to an innovative economy." But behind this stand-off regarding freedom of speech lies a much bigger issue: who polices the internet?
The issue has gradually emerged over the past decade, but in the past three years it has shot up the security agenda. Just as every other aspect of our lives becomes increasingly difficult to imagine without the internet, so have crime, commercial espionage and national security threats launched themselves into cyberspace.
But although the web is a global communications network, nation states tend to police it locally. And the dominance of American companies in the software and hardware industries as well as in web-based services affords US government agencies huge advantages in monitoring what is happening out in cyberspace.
Take Google, the largest repository of personal secrets in the world, thanks to its popular e-mail service, Gmail. If FBI agents in Washington want to tap into the Gmail account of a suspect, they can in a matter of days - quicker if necessary. If a police officer from a friendly country such as Britain or Australia, on the other hand, needs access they must apply through a cumbersome international order. A senior Irish policeman whose department investigates international paedophilia rings told me a request takes between three and six months before it is granted. By that time, he added, "the birds may well have flown." Less close allies have trouble getting near such accounts, explaining why some, such as the UAE, are taking matters into their own hands.
The US has another enormous advantage over everybody else: in collaboration with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it commands an immense global electronic intelligence gathering network. This is how western intelligence agencies are able to assess "chatter" between suspected terror networks on the web.
Let me be clear: the US has not succumbed to the draconian internet monitoring methods that exist in Russia and increasingly in China, but this is in part because its global digital reach compensates for its more selective surveillance of domestic traffic. The UAE wants what RIM has already granted to select countries such as Russia, namely control over all networks inside its borders. This is partly because the UAE is an undemocratic system in which security agencies take precedence over the rights of individual citizens. But it is also because the threats posed by the internet have persuaded states to impose all manner of restrictions of what data can cross their borders, or circulate within them.
In this respect, the UAE is just a late-comer to a party that is already in full swing. The internet is fracturing into a series of huge country-based intranets, in which governments define, in the name of security, what is legitimate personal and intellectual communication, and what is not. The impact on most users' daily interaction with the web will not often be noticeable. Criminals, terrorists and spooks, especially those with advanced hacking ability, will continue to find ways around surveillance (even if it is getting harder). But anyone harbouring the illusion that they will still enjoy real privacy on the web over the next decade should think again.
The writer is the author of McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime
Credit: Misha Glenny