EXCLUSIVE: BlackBerry patch was not for spying, claims Etisalat

VP tells Arabian Business patch was to improve performance.
EXCLUSIVE: BlackBerry patch was not for spying, claims Etisalat
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By Tom Arnold
Thu 23 Jul 2009 12:06 PM

Etisalat has denied controversial software it sent to its BlackBerry subscribers was designed to spy on customers.

Abdulla Hashim, vice president of enterprise solutions for Etisalat, said the patch was intended to improve the performance of services for BlackBerry subscribers, but that the firm regretted the problems caused to users who downloaded the software.

Etisalat had since sent BlackBerry subscribers “correction software” allowing users to deactivate the patch, he said.

The telecom operator faced accusations of spying on its customers from software and telecom security experts, who said the software was a surveillance patch enabling Etisalat to see emails sent from BlackBerry devices, a theory that was endorsed by BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) on its website.

Etisalat stopped issuing the patch after it was found to greatly reduce the battery life of the smartphone.

“This patch is not for spying,” Hashim told Arabian Business in an exclusive interview.

“The patch was needed to improve performance on the BlackBerry coverage.”

The Java-based software was designed to improve coverage for users moving from 3G to 2G network areas within the UAE, he said.

“Etisalat has 3G and 2G networks and this (the patch) was to enhance the handover from 3G to 2G when people are moving around the UAE as 3G is not 100 percent. 3G is 97 percent coverage.”

Hashim’s comments contradict RIM’s assertion that it was “not aware of any technical network concerns with the performance of BlackBerry smartphones on Etisalat’s network in the UAE.”

Asked if Etisalat regretted issuing the patch, Hashim said: “We don’t feel happy as we were hoping it (the patch) would improve things but it caused problems, despite testing.

“But we don’t regret the intention of what we tried to achieve. Whenever we find software to enhance the performance of a mobile device and improve customer experience we will issue it. It is our duty to improve network performance.”

A technical fault with the patch was behind the problems experienced by “several hundred” customers who downloaded the software, he said.

He said the company had sent the patch to its 150,000 BlackBerry subscribers earlier this month but only a small number had downloaded it.

“The patch has been stopped being issued. It caused problems and we sent correction software to customers to remove it,” he added.

Meanwhile, an online poll by Arabian Business found that more than half of Etisalat’s BlackBerry customers are planning to ditch the telecoms provider.

Experts said the problems were caused by too many devices trying to register the software at once.

RIM on Tuesday released a strongly-worded statement claiming it was “not involved in any way in the testing, promotion or distribution of this software application.”

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