For the past 10 years, terrorists, insurgents and criminals around the world have been using off-the-shelf hardware and software to stay ahead of security professionals and police systems with far more cash at their disposal. The most stunning use of such technology occurred in Mumbai in November 2008 when terrorists launched a series of devastating attacks that lasted three days and descended into a deadly game of cat and mouse as gunmen stalked the streets of Mumbai and the corridors of the city’s hotels, shooting both local citizens and foreign visitors.
What separates the Mumbai attack from others was how mobile telephones and social media were utilised, both by the perpetrators and the victims. While many heard gunfire, few knew the magnitude of what was unfolding when the attack began. BlackBerry’s messenger application and e-mail system and other technologies on mobile devices became the main sources of information.
As the news reports were beamed all over the world, the organisers of the attacks based in Pakistan were also watching. They were able to learn where people were hiding and direct the terrorists. On one phone conversation recorded by security forces, a terrorist is informed by his handlers where a large group of foreigners were hidden alongside a local politician. When the gunmen received the information, he described it as "the icing on the cake".
The Indian security forces were caught by surprise, and they tragically remained one step behind as a rampage continued. Since then, security forces have claimed that the terrorists used BlackBerrys in the planning stages of the attack. Significantly, the terrorists’ use of mobile phones and social media also allowed them to monitor the international reaction to the atrocities and the police response.
This episode served as a valuable wake-up call about what terrorists are capable of in the digital age. Without that level of communication, the attacks may have been far less devastating. This is the disturbing backdrop behind the decision of the UAE and other nations to propose a ban on BlackBerry software that makes them a unique communication tool. It could not have been decided lightly.
In the event that negotiations with Research in Motion (RIM) do not reach an acceptable conclusion and the ban is implemented on October 11, the UAE is likely to incur some short-term costs, not all of them financial. But first, the balance sheets of the country’s two telecoms operators, Etisalat and du, are likely to be affected in the short term. Yet remedies are already being implemented. Etisalat has announced an offer to provide replacement smart phones for its BlackBerry customers, and du has committed to making a similar announcement in the immediate future. With an estimated 500,000 BlackBerry users in the UAE, the cost of replacement options will in the long run open new opportunities for new business and services as users migrate to these services.
A more problematic aspect of the ban is an incremental cost to the UAE’s reputation as an open hub for commerce and travel. If roaming services are banned, BlackBerry-addicted travellers will be forced to find an alternative means of communicating – or even an alternative destination. However, with the list of states considering some form of BlackBerry ban growing – now including Lebanon, Algeria and India – the UAE is unlikely to be alone. RIM faces financial consequences if it cannot find a suitable resolution.
Of course companies want secure communication. A "knowledge-based economy" and one where growth is increasingly reliant on intellectual property depends on information remaining secure. At a certain point on the spectrum between completely confidential communication and completely accessible communication, there is the possibility that information might need to be accessed by the authorities to guarantee transparency. After all, companies also depend on a stable, secure environment to generate their profits, which BlackBerry's technologies might endanger.
Throughout its history, the UAE has achieved remarkable success in balancing its legitimate security concerns with its desire to be friendly to business. With the BlackBerry ban, it has sacrificed a limited amount of business appeal for the increased security of its citizens and guests. While there is room for disagreement regarding the benefits and drawbacks of the ban, the legitimacy of the country’s security concerns should not be in doubt.
Theodore Karasik is an Adjunct Professor at the Dubai School of Government and the Director of Research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma). Stephen Brannon is the Acting Director for External Affairs at the Dubai School of Government.
This article was originally published in The National. It can be accessed here