Monthly Archives: August 2010

RIM Grabs Their Ankles

Last week, Research in Motion, the makers of the Blackberry, were allowed to continue selling their near-ubiquitous belt accessory in Saudi Arabia.  Although nobody is talking officially and on the record, the unattributed reason is that RIM caved and has agreed to put Blackberry servers in Saudi Arabia. 

The cynical may suggest that the presence of the Blackberry servers means the Saudi State Security apparatus can now examine the texts, voicemail, email and phone calls of anyone in Saudi Arabia, no matter where they’re calling.  That would be cynical and so would the assumption that all the other handset makers, including Apple and Google with their iPhone and Android respectively, have already given over the keys to the back door.

None of this especially surprising.  India, who has been making “No Blackberry here!” noises for a few months, is apparently in discussions with RIM to solve their dilemma.  The dilemma being, the Indian State Security apparatus wants to be able to read anything they want, when they want, as soon as they want, as well as listen in on calls, read texts and generally poke around.  RIM didn’t want to let them.

RIM is in a bad spot.  Their product is well known as a reasonably secure way for people to transmit email and text with a fairly good assumption of privacy and that is exactly the problem.  In North America we have a reasonable expectation that the government, if they want to read our email and tap our phones, have to go before a judge and get a time-limited warrant.  There is at least a modest assumption that our phone calls are somewhat private.  This is emphatically not the case in several dozen other countries around the world and RIM is taking it in the shorts.

So, how private is your email or phone calls on a handheld smartphone?  The answer is not even vaguely private, to the extent that you might as well post your email live on your own website and save the authorities the trouble of having to track it down.

Which comes back to the reason why?  The first reason is always “to get those evildoers of the Axis of Evil, a bearded tall man with a dialysis machine who lives in a cave, illegal file sharers, pedophiles and those who violate the copyright act.”

The second reason is straight-up economic espionage.  Sorry kids, it ain’t glamorous James Bond stuff, it’s just business intelligence.  Let us take a simple example to illustrate and we’ll hasten to add here, that this is entirely made up, out of whole cloth.

Canada is a world-leader in the production of the enzymes needed to produce ethanol from things like wheat straw, switchgrass and tree bark.  It’s called cellulostic-ethanol and it doesn’t use food to make ethanol, like the vast majority of ‘green’ fuels.  One company is very good at it.  In fact, they’re just a few kilometers away from where this is being written.

If you were (supposing here for a minute) the producer of the vast majority of Genetically Modified seed corn, who has just finished the final testing of a years-long multi-million dollar project creating the ideal corn hybrid that almost ferments itself, grows inches every day, is rot, disease and pest resistant and will make your company a sure-bet zillion dollars a year, would you be protective of your position?  Hell yeah!

So you want to know about what this cellulostic-ethanol enzyme producing bunch of a-holes is going to do to your business plan.  Of course you do.  By far, the simplest way to stop the production of that particular batch of their newest, most effective and cheapest enzyme is to have a fire suddenly erupt over a weekend and burn their joint to the ground.  Brute force always works, but let’s suggest you’re not quite ready, corporately, to engage in arson.

Could you, using a little technology, a little stealth, some simple detective work and a dose of moral ambiguity, find out exactly how well, or how poorly that competitor’s product is doing, will do, or is being received?  Hell yeah! 

Pick the right executive and have someone install a simple USB keylogger on the machine.  You can even do it with what appears to be spam email and then you’ve got the keys.  Snoop at your will.  You’ve protected your business position with your product and your bonus next year is going to be huge. 

Now expand that scope from business to business and make it country versus country.  Does Airbus Industries from France have a vested interest in Canada buying products from Airbus, instead of Boeing, in the US?  Hell yeah!  Who are the Russians talking with about Crimean oil deposits and what will that do to the price of oil?  What is the intent of the Chinese steel industry regarding scrap iron?  Are they heading towards making less steel from iron ore and coke and more from recycled scrap? 

You can go on ad infinitum and notice the thread:  It’s not the nuclear launch codes, troop dispositions, or what President Obama had for lunch.  That stuff is so 1980’s as to be laughable.  Where the real money and power is, is business espionage.

Which, coming full circle, is why business people liked the Blackberry:  It was reasonably secure. 

Does this mean that Saudi Arabia, India, China and Turkey are not actually concerned with ‘terrorist activities’?  It makes a convincing cover story, but the real issue is economic.  They want to know what the business people are doing, especially the foreign business people, who might have insights or needs that aren’t being served in the most profitable method by the government, or their appointed cronies.

RIM meanwhile, recognizes that India and China are their next biggest markets.  Only about a third of the world’s population is up for grabs.  If they have to grab their ankles to get that pie, then hang on.

Besides, their competitors have already sold out.

Blackberry Ban

Yesterday the Blackberry got canned in Saudi Arabia.  Turkey hates the Blackberry while India and China are looking at the ubiquitous hip device as a candidate for control.  Why, you ask?  Is it because the product is Evil?  No.

The Blackberry format of mobile device has encryption.  Pretty good encryption actually.  The consumer models aren’t quite a strongly protected as the business models with a BES (Blackberry Enterprise Server) in the back of the house.  Blackberry doesn’t route their stuff through ‘common’ carrier servers:  Research in Motion (RIM, the lads who own Blackberry) runs the email side with their own servers.  Many of the servers are in Waterloo Ontario, not far from the RIM HQ, here in Canada.

What is causing the “Blackberry Ban” is that RIM won’t let the governments of various countries stick their noses into what the Blackberry users are saying, sending or texting.  Without a Blackberry proxy server in Turkey or Saudi Arabia for instance, the state security agency can’t monitor what the citizens are doing.  Which also explains why India and China are considering banning the Blackberry.  Heavens forbid that some citizen of those countries might have something positive to say about Pakistan or Tibet.  The World Will End!

Where the icky part comes in, is the other mobile manufacturers.  How much are they complying with the various governments.  Apple, that paragon of all goodness must be playing footsie with the Saudi government, which means there is no ban on the iPhone.  Google’s Android isn’t outlawed in Saudi.  Nor is anything running the Windows Smartphone, Palm, or any of the other manufacturers.  Only Blackberry.

The paranoid out there will suggest that Google has given access to the various governments involved.  The cynical will suggest that Steve Jobs has handed over the keys to the iPhone so Turkish State Security can monitor all the iPhone fanboys downloading the latest instalment of Twilight, or another wretched Adam Lambert video.  Of course, we are not paranoid, or cynical.

Anyone who has a ‘smartphone’ regardless of manufacturer, should have a proper mindset.  The preeminent characteristic of that mindset is that the manufacturer is watching over your shoulder, watching every website you visit, every email you send and every text you tap to every contact in your address book. 

They’re looking for keywords that describe your shopping and social habits to sell to advertisers, for money.  The big profits for any smartphone company is not in the airtime or the data plan.  The big money is in market intelligence.  Where do you go?  What do you talk about?  Who do you talk with?  What stores do you go by?  When do you sleep?  What time do you leave the house? What tunes do you listen to?  What videos do you watch on your phone?  What websites do you use?  What apps do you use most often?

Yes, all that data is readily mined from your smartphone, especially if you have a ‘mobile’ app that features GPS locating. 

Am I near a Starbucks?  Well, the app can’t know if you are, unless the app knows where you are.  How does it know where you are?  Interrogate the onboard smartphone GPS and it will tell the app, plus or minus a few meters, exactly where the phone is located, the phone conceptually being attached to you hip.  Interrogate the database of Starbucks locations to find the ones closest, then display the locations on a map. 

You can now walk the block and a half to get your double-decaf, half-caf, soymilk, lite foam, half Splenda-half sugar, cocoa-dusted with a single shake of cinnamon, triple espresso latte chillerama with medium ice, only a little caramel topping and extra napkins with two straws, one that bends and one that doesn’t.  By the way, that order makes you a complete asshat.

Which means Mindset Number One for a smartphone user is that you have been ear-tagged like a dairy cow.  Willingly.  In fact you paid for the privilege of being ear-tagged and pay every month when you pay your wireless bill.  You pay for the ‘convenience’ of those apps and you pay again when your carrier resells the aggregate market intelligence to advertisers.  Do you think those targeted text messages from sandwich shops, clothiers or other advertisers just magically appear on your smartphone as a random guess that you might be near an outlet?  The answer is No.

As for nefarious uses of smartphones, we have to define nefarious.  To the Saudi government that could mean trying to open a website that tells you about the beaches at Haifa.  Israel does not exist to Saudi Arabia.  Therefore anyone wanting to find out about the beaches at Haifa must be insane, Jewish, or drunk, three things you are not allowed to be in Saudi Arabia.  Cross-tabulate that with your smartphone GPS and we now know where to send the squad car and the guys with the nets and the leg irons.

Perhaps the important question to ask is not why the Blackberry is under scrutiny by foreign governments, but why other smartphone manufacturers are not.