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Thu 23 Jul 2009 12:51 PM

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The question Etisalat has to answer

BlackBerry customers still have a lot of questions, says Damian Reilly.

“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?

Over to you. 

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dphil 11 years ago

I just wish this article was posted on the front page of Gulf News tomorrow and WORLDWIDE !!! Always have and will despise Etisalat for their horrible services, I hope DU will now surface as a better and honest player and reach out their services to the rest of the UAE (as Sharjah doesnt avail of their services). TRA, its about time you killed this monopolistic attitude and allowed competition to enter the country.

Sheryar 11 years ago

I really dont think etisalat would even consider giving us an answer. Or rather the answer would be so lame that we would end up dissapointed at first and then laughing at them for they really have no clue what they are saying. They dont really care what anyone thinks or what they do....typical of them after all they are the only operator in UAE, oops I forgot now we have DU as well, which is also a part of the same stream ;).

Zhani 11 years ago

When Etisalat blocks Skype.com or other VOIP sites saying its against the country's culture, and people STILL pay their billats CEO should be appologizing on air to all of his blood donors, while submitting his resignation. Instead, we read yesterday in the newspapers that Etisalat is Buying ZEIN ! Etisalat is a monopoly, and they set the rules of the game, and until AT&T or TMobile force their way in and give them a run on their money, we are going to pay up, with our mouths shut, while others are paying a tenth for their phone calls.

Harold B 11 years ago

Etisalat has been so ill-served by whichever local press-release merchant who does its PR it will probably never recover its international reputation. Those golfball-topped buildings will become the signature of all that is wrong here, lack of transparency, reliance on spin and a total contempt for the consumer. The failure completely of the crisis management procedures that should have been in place are a bad omen for the talkie-talkie industry called PR in this country.

Pete 11 years ago

Etisalat is acquiring licenses all over the globe, countries should look closely at Etisalat's practice and be more careful at what Etisalat may be doing in their country's network. They may be spying on VIPs diplomats and other key people in their country, Blacberry's hold sensitive information. This is a serious matter and should be investigated in countries where Etisalat has aquired a telecom license.

ZS 11 years ago

Let's not blame Etisalat. The third party is the one to be blamed, but who is the third party by the way? Etisalat was the only player across the UAE for long time and now Du which is same Etisalat but with different name shares Etisalat the telecommunication market in the UAE. I believe, any one who protects Etisalat monopoly has the power to dictate Etisalat decisions. Whether or not the decisions made by Etisalat or the "Third Party"are ethical or legal, that is a subjective question.

Pierre Chandelle 11 years ago

While the software code has been exposed and commented, guessing Etisalat intentions is an exercise we should refrain from (though the silence of their PR is deafening). The guessing work feeds on the following facts: 1. SS8 copyright and references are everywhere in the code. Knowing the business SS8.COM is specialized in, everybody is assuming that they botched an interception software by not making it stealth. Hardly convincing... I am not a fan of this guys but they are far from being novices and reckless. 2. Even if the (valid) comments on the code clearly show that this software lacks punch by self-limiting its scope of investigation, nobody seems to question its intended purpose. 3. We are not living in a canonical democratic regime, hence we should not be surprized by this intrusion in our privacy. Humm... Ever heard of Echelon ?? 4. RIM reaction to distanciate themselves from this "patch" is a perceived of the confirmation of our worst fears. There are many possible alternative explanations. I'll give you one to chew on. Let's suppose that Etisalat wants to independently [without RIM being involved] verify performance and substantiate claims from customers (excessive delays in messages sending/delivery are piling up since they started BlackBerry service) ? They could have reused and "patched" a code from SS8 for this purpose, without having thoroughly tested it before releasing it. Caught with their pants down, they might be left with no real good ways to extricate themselves from this situation.