Etisalat accused in surveillance patch fiasco

RIM distances itself from Etisalat amid allegations of role in BlackBerry spyware.
Etisalat accused in surveillance patch fiasco
SPYWARE PATCH: RIM releases statement confirming Etisalats role in BlackBerry spyware. (Getty Images)
By George Bevir
Tue 21 Jul 2009 04:57 PM

Etisalat is facing new controversy after handset partner and BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) on Tuesday distanced itself from the operator amid allegations the UAE firm deliberately infected its customers’ handsets with spyware.

In a damning blow for Etisalat, RIM has released a strongly-worded statement that claims it was “not involved in any way in the testing, promotion or distribution of this software application”, which Etisalat originally described as a “performance enhancement patch”.

RIM’s assertion that it is “not aware of any technical network concerns with the performance of BlackBerry smartphones on Etisalat ’s network in the UAE” directly contradicts Etisalat’s claim that the Java-based software it offered to its BlackBerry users was designed to aid 2G to 3G handovers.

Etisalat has so far refused to address the conclusions of software and telecom security experts, who say the software is a surveillance patch that enables the operator to see emails sent from the devices, a theory that was endorsed by RIM on its website.

RIM stated: “Independent sources have concluded that the Etisalat update is not designed to improve performance of your BlackBerry, but rather to send received messages back to a central server.”

RIM has now developed its own software to enable BlackBerry users to remove the Etisalat update.Etisalat will be further embarrassed by RIM’s advice to BlackBerry users to not download applications from “unknown or untrusted sources”, and its warning that “another attempt to push the surveillance software on to consumers may be made”.

The lengthy statement and advice on how to remove the software is a clear attempt by the Canada-based manufacturer to distance itself from Etisalat. Until now, RIM had refused to respond to questions about the software and this latest move signals a souring in the relations between UAE incumbent Etisalat and handset maker RIM, who joined forces to launch the first BlackBerry smartphones in the UAE in 2006.

Etisalat stopped issuing the patch after it was found to greatly reduce the battery life of devices, which experts say was caused by too many devices trying to register the software at once.

The operator claimed the software was meant to fix “a conflict in the settings in some BlackBerry devices” that Etisalat said had led to “a slight technical fault while upgrading the software of these devices”. Etisalat also claimed the BlackBerry devices were experiencing problems moving from 2G to 3G cell sites.

But experts poured scorn on Etisalat’s reasons for issuing the software, claiming that handover problems could not be addressed with a Java-based upgrade.Etisalat did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the software released by BlackBerry.

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