UAE tries to spy via BlackBerrys

BlackBerry users in the UAE recently found out that a regular software update they were encouraged to download by the state-controlled service provider Etisalat was really a spy program that once installed, would give the government access to all sorts of private data – email, text, as well as contact and personal details stored on the machines.

Many of the BlackBerry users in that part of the world, which encompasses the swiftly growing Dubai, are businessmen who use their BlackBerrys to conduct confidential communications and transactions all the time. The scandal has left over half of Etisalat users with the intention of canceling their contracts with their nosy provider (we wonder why not all of them?).

The spyware would not have been discovered were it not for poor planning on the spies’ part. Most people were very eager to get the upgrade – we all do this. New version of Firefox? New iTunes? We download the upgrades without thinking twice. Because there was such a flood of people accessing the new software simultaneously, the servers were overwhelmed, which somehow caused an unusually fast depletion of BlackBerry batteries across the area.

Screenshot from SS8 website

A few of the more technology-inclined users started to scratch under the surface and discovered that their upgrades weren’t exactly kosher. It turns out the spyware was developed by an American company called SS8, which markets ‘lawful interception’ – that’s a very loose application of lawful, Etisalat.

The Canadian company that makes BlackBerry says they have had absolutely nothing to do with the scandalous app. Their statement did confirm Etisalat’s plans to bug BlackBerrys with the purpose of having private communications conveyed to a central server.

Was the purpose of the mass invasion of privacy Big-Brother-like? Or was it just a way to get information from a few suspicious fellows already under some sort of investigation without setting off any alarm bells?

Either way, the botched spying attempt has set off all sorts of alarms – exactly the sort of thing that will worry international businesses looking to stake a claim in Dubai.

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