“Reach out. The world’s waiting,” Etisalat implores visitors to its website. What it doesn’t mention is that if you are using a BlackBerry to “reach out” – which is lately the bizarre Americanism for communicating – your emails could well be sent on to a third party.
At the end of June, Etisalat asked its customers using BlackBerry devices to download a “network improvement patch.” Many did. Shortly thereafter, their BlackBerrys ceased to work properly. Investigating the malfunction, computer experts discovered that the patch did not in any way improve network performance.
Rather, it was described as a highly sophisticated piece of spyware, the purpose of which was to circumvent state-of-the-art encryption and security systems in order to send private emails to a third party server.
Here’s Dan Hoffman, the chief technical officer of SMobile, a company which produces popular anti-virus and security packages for BlackBerrys: “We did thorough analysis at our global threat centre. No doubt about it, it was intended to intercept people’s emails and forward them on to someone else.”
In fact, Canadian firm Research in Motion (RIM) which actually makes BlackBerrys was so alarmed by Etisalat’s claims that the patch was intended to enhance performance that it put out a strongly worded statement, distancing itself from the UAE’s largest telecom company.
“It is not a RIM authorised upgrade. 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… In this case, Etisalat appears to have distributed a telecommunications surveillance system,” the statement said.
Etisalat had originally claimed that the patch was “required for service enhancements particularly for issues identified related to the handover between 2G to 3G network coverage areas”, but RIM would have none of it.
The RIM statement says flatly: “In general terms, a third-party patch cannot provide any enhancements to network services as there is no capability for third parties to develop or modify the low-level radio communications protocols that would be involved in making such improvements.”
At the time of writing, no one from Etisalat was available for comment. In the absence of a proper explanation, it is natural for the UAE’s residents to wonder how the company came to ask BlackBerry users to download a piece of software that was not designed to improve the quality of the service they were subscribing to, but rather to enable a third party to have access to their private correspondence. Was it just human error?
With each passing day that Etisalat refrains from putting out an official statement on the issue, one which properly addresses the concerns of customers, the dreams of conspiracy-theorists from Al-Ain to Ras al-Khor will become yet more fervent. Come on Etisalat – you’re a huge and normally very eloquent communications company. It’s time you communicated with your customers. What was the purpose of the patch and why did you ask people to download it?
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