Islamabad: BlackBerry Ltd will delay shutting down its operations in Pakistan until Dec 30 as negotiations continue over government demands for access to users’ private data, the company and the telecoms authority said on Monday.
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had in July demanded BlackBerry give it access to its BlackBerry Enterprise Services, which encrypt data such as emails and instant messages, or shut it down by Nov 30.
The PTA on Monday then suggested a one-month extension to that deadline, its chairman Syed Ismail Shah said. BlackBerry also confirmed the extension in a statement on its website.
“The level of access is still under discussion,” Shah said. “We can extend the deadline and they can continue to work until then.”
Pakistan has said it needs access to maintain its security, with police saying criminals use secure communications like those provided by BlackBerry.
Analysts say the government is increasing electronic surveillance to target activists, politicians and journalists.
Earlier today, BlackBerry Chief Operating Officer Marty Beard confirmed in a statement posted to the smartphone makers’ website that the company will not operate in Pakistan after Nov 30.
“Pakistan’s demand for open access to monitor a significant swath of our customers’ communications within its borders left us no choice but to exit the country entirely,” Beard had said.
The COO said the company made the move because “remaining in Pakistan would have meant forfeiting our commitment to protect our users’ privacy”.
Beard said: “In July, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority notified the country’s mobile phone operators that BlackBerry’s BES servers would no longer be allowed to operate in the country starting in December ‘for security reasons’.”
PTA spokesman Khurram Mehran told Dawn.com: “We are still in contact with BlackBerry Limited to find out a solution. BlackBerry was earlier asked to provide access to BlackBerry Enterprise Services(BES) till Nov 30, 2015.”
PTA officials earlier told Dawn.com that BlackBerry had been sent a notice in July 2015 regarding security concerns related to the company’s BES offering and that the company had been given a deadline of Nov 30 for discontinuation of the service.
They said that BlackBerry has been cooperating with security agencies of other countries, but despite requests from Pakistani authorities, they were not cooperating in accordance with the National Action Plan formulated after the Dec 16 Taliban attacks on Peshawar’s Army Public School.
‘Unfettered access to user data’
Beard, in his post, goes on to say the Pakistani government wanted the ability to monitor all BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) traffic in the country, including emails and BlackBerry Messenger messages.
“Pakistan’s demand was not a question of public safety; we are more than happy to assist law enforcement agencies in investigations of criminal activity. Rather, Pakistan was essentially demanding unfettered access to all of our BES customers’ information,” the COO said.
Director BoloBhi and digital rights activist Farieha Aziz said the situation in Pakistan was getting worse, not better, as companies to whom privacy of data and protection of speech is important would be wary of establishing a presence in the country.
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Compunode Software and Technology Advisor for Dawn Aleem Bawany says, “BlackBerry has seen its stock prices plummet so it is surprising to see it move out of the lucrative Pakistani market over something it has complied with in the past. Five years ago, BlackBerry faced a temporary ban in Saudi Arabia until it complied with monitoring demands.”
The PTA in July had issued a notification saying, “Due to serious concerns expressed by security agencies, Mobilink, Ufone and Telenor are requested to give their BES customers 90 days notice for closing their connections by or before Nov 30, 2015.”
Citing security reasons, the first notice about the discontinuation of BlackBerry services was issued earlier in 2015.
But PTA clarified in a statement that other BlackBerry services such as messenger and BlackBerry Internet services (BIS) could continue.
BES in Pakistan
There are 4,000 to 5,000 BES customers in Pakistan.
Officials in the cellular industry have said BlackBerry phones are a thing of the past and most of their subscribers have switched over to other smart phones, but large business enterprises and foreign missions are still using BES.
BES users access internet through a dedicated server which is a private, internal network within a company and is like a mini-internet that is cut off from the rest of the world. The BES subscribers can connect with the internet as well, but with added layers of security.
Both BES and BIS allow BlackBerry users to get email and retrieve web-pages. In the case of BIS, the network operates the server. Everything from BIS to BlackBerry devices is encrypted, but that’s about the extent of security features.
For BES, the company operates the server and usually has it sitting somewhere within the corporate network. The IT department controls all aspects of the BES server and its likely sitting is secured location.
Government snooping and data privacy
In recent times, the issue of data privacy of users has been debated in western countries in the wake of the Edward Snowden saga.
On one hand, governments argue that monitoring data of companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and BlackBerry is essential for national security and keeping track of criminals and terrorists who use these technologies to operate.
But on the other hand, critics of government snooping argue that such measures trespass on user privacy, defeating the intended purpose of the technology.
The government of Pakistan, for instance, has made 192 requests for data from Facebook, for the period between January 2015 and June 2015, a report from the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) revealed earlier this month.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2013 had said revelations about US government surveillance hurt users’ trust in Internet companies and that knowing more about the programs would help relieve some of the public concerns.
Following these revelations, China has come down hard on US tech companies, making it difficult for them to introduce their products in the lucrative Chinese market.
Earlier this year, Apple was not allowed to launch its iPhone 6 smart phone in China, pending regulatory approval from Chinese authorities.