Reporters Without Borders said it is worried about cooperation between Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian manufacturer of the popular BlackBerry smartphone, and the British authorities in the wake of this past week’s rioting in London and other cities in which, according to the authorities, rioters used its messaging service, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), to communicate with each other.
BBM uses the Internet rather than the mobile phone network and requires user authentication, which makes it hard for the authorities to intercept messages.
To help address this difficulty, RIM has already provided Scotland Yard with information about a number of BlackBerry users, jeopardizing their personal data.
“We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can,” RIM announced on Twitter.
What consequences will this cooperation have on respect for the privacy of BlackBerry users? If information provided by RIM leads to arrests, questions will be raised about the validity of the evidence and the legality of the way it was acquired. Reporters Without Borders is also concerned about habeas corpus implications.
Reporters Without Borders is not minimizing the gravity of the situation in the United Kingdom and the urgency of the need to restore order, but it believes that the provision of personal data to the police sets a disturbing precedent in a western country and could have significant consequences as regards setting an example for others kinds of government.
Reporters Without Borders is also shocked by the statements of several politicians. David Lammy, the parliamentary representative for the London district of Tottenham, went so far as to ask BlackBerry to consider suspending its messaging service. This is an astonishing suggestion in a democracy, one with potentially grave consequences. The threats to freedoms are now real.
Finally, we urge the British authorities to rule out any possibility of shutting down or drastically restricting the use of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
Reporters Without Borders also takes a very dim view of Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion that leading TV broadcasters have a duty to hand over unused footage of the rioting to the police. This would turn them into police auxiliaries and seriously endanger their independence.
RIM has been pressured by governments in the past and has yielded to ultimatums from repressive regimes in countries such as United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for the filtering of websites, access to user data, or the censorship of encrypted services. Reporters Without Borders is alarmed that the United Kingdom is now putting pressure on a telecommunications company.
Since 1 May, the United Arab Emirates has blocked use of BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), which is BlackBerry’s most secure system and channels all communications via servers located outside of the country. Saudi Arabia pressured RIM to channel its communications via a server inside the country which the authorities could access after obtaining a court order.
Reporters Without Borders urges RIM to think seriously about its social responsibility and to discuss this issue with organizations that defend civil liberties. Reporters Without Borders also urges the British police to think twice before any decision to control or suspend smartphone services and to abandon the practice of seeking personal data without a court order.