BlackBerry refuses Pakistan’s monitoring request, must exit country

BlackBerry will be forced to cease operations in Pakistan on Dec. 30 after refusing the government its request to monitor BlackBerry Enterprise Service traffic, according to a blog post written by Marty Beard, chief operating officer at BlackBerry.

Initially the Pakistan government issued a shutdown order that was to be executed today – Nov. 30 – but that has since been extended to Dec. 30.

“While we regret leaving this important market and our valued customers there, remaining in Pakistan would have meant forfeiting our commitment to protect our users’ privacy,” Beard writes. “That is a compromise we are not willing to make.”

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority first issued notice in July that BlackBerry would have to cease operations starting in December. The government cited “security reasons” for the shutdown, and Beard says it wanted to monitor BES traffic including every email and BBM message.

This isn’t the first time that BlackBerry has faced disputes with governments for operating an encrypted communications network. Since BlackBerry offers companies the option of hosting their own communications servers behind firewalls, it is unique among handset manufacturers in that it can offer encrypted communications channels that don’t involve a third party or publicly-accessible servers. For a government to monitor these communications, it requires BlackBerry to provide it backdoor access and the decryption key.

India has requested similar access from BlackBerry since 2011. In 2013, BlackBerry did compromise by providing access to consumers’ BBM messages and emails. But the company claims that its BES services remain untouched.

Being ousted from Pakistan isn’t in line with BlackBerry CEO John Chen’s strategy to grow in developing countries. When Chen took the helm in 2013, one of his first projects was to launch new low-cost hardware targeted at developing countries, where BlackBerry was seeing good growth and accounted for nearly two-third of its revenue at the time.

BlackBerry spoke about the importance of the Pakistan market in 2012, when it launched its App World store there, complete with apps providing live cricket scores and providing access to local music. While exact market share data from Pakistan is hard to find, it was estimated that BlackBerry had 1 million users there in 2012.

On the other hand, if BlackBerry were to relent to Pakistan’s request for BES access, it could no longer claim to put its users privacy as a top consideration. It would also be in a position that it would be tough to decline access to other countries.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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