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Sat 1 Aug 2009 04:00 AM

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Who’s listening?

Accused of spying on its BlackBerry subscribers’ emails, Etisalat is facing a rising chorus of disapproval from its customers.

Who’s listening?
Etisalat’s handset partner and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion claimed that Etisalat appeared to have distributed a telecoms surveillance application without RIM’s knowledge.
Who’s listening?
BlackBerry subscribers remain unconvinced by Etisalat’s insistence the patch was not a surveillance application, our online poll reveals.

Accused of spying on its BlackBerry subscribers’ emails, Etisalat is facing a rising chorus of disapproval from customers demanding answers from the embattled UAE telecoms operator.When Kalyan Charan downloaded a piece of software from Etisalat onto his BlackBerry smartphone he received a nasty shock.

Instead of the performance enhancement Etisalat promised Charan the patch would provide, the software had exactly the opposite effect on his handset.

“My phone started overheating,” explained a distinctly unimpressed Charan in a post on ArabianBusiness.com.

“All my calls to 101 [Etisalat’s customer helpline] were put on hold for eternity and then disconnected, then eventually my LCD screen burnt out from the heat the patch was generating,” he added.

Charan was just one of several hundred BlackBerry subscribers left frustrated after downloading the “performance enhancement patch” issued by the UAE telecoms provider at the start of July only to find it led to problems, not least, severely sapping the battery life of handsets.

At the time, state-controlled Etisalat said the software it issued to its 145,000 BlackBerry subscribers was designed to improve coverage for users moving from 3G to 2G network coverage areas within the UAE.

But frustration among BlackBerry users turned to anger as various software and telecom security experts concluded that Etisalat’s claims about the application were false and that it was, in fact, a surveillance patch, enabling the operator to intercept emails sent from the smartphone.

Online message boards were inundated with irate customers venting their fury with Etisalat, while the controversy of the spyware scandal even spawned a catchy song at the operator’s expense posted on YouTube.

“This is a total invasion of privacy by Etisalat. I wonder who or what inspired this? Are they trying to tie us down?,” said Jeny Michaels, an angry BlackBerry subscriber, in a post on ArabianBusiness.com.

“Moreover, we have critical corporate data on our BlackBerry which we now are unsure is safe or not.”

The problems deepened for Etisalat when handset partner and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) added its weight to the spyware allegations in a statement on July 17, claiming that the operator appeared to have distributed a telecommunications surveillance application without the Canadian firm’s knowledge.

“Under such circumstances, independent sources have concluded that it is possible that the installed software could then enable unauthorised access to private or confidential information stored on the user’s smartphone,” read the statement.

For its part, Etisalat has kept its response to the accusations to a minimum but it has repeated its insistence that the Java-based software was to aid 2G to 3G handovers.

This patch is not for spying,” Abdulla Hashim, vice president of enterprise solutions for Etisalat, told Arabian Business in an exclusive interview on July 23.

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

“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.”

The firm, he said, had since stopped issuing the patch.

BlackBerry subscribers, however, remain unconvinced by Etisalat’s insistence the patch was not a surveillance application.

“You’ll be telling us the world is flat next and at the centre of the universe,” read a sarcastic post by a BlackBerry user on ArabianBusiness.com.When Arabian Business contacted Hashim three days later he said Etisalat could not comment further on the patch.

Repeated requests for a statement or interview with Etisalat through its public relations firm ASDA’A also proved fruitless.

So far, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has remained silent on the issue, despite requests from Arabian Business for a comment.

However, this has not stopped other independent voices from having their say about the software.

“It’s negligent,” says one software security expert who asked to remain anonymous. They [Etisalat] are sending software to customers that could lead to a situation where people lose personal data.”

In what may provide further embarrassment for Etisalat, RIM said it did not endorse the software and issued advice to BlackBerry users to not download applications from unknown or untrusted sources.

For its part, RIM, which with Etisalat launched the first BlackBerry smartphones in the UAE in 2006, developed its own software to enable BlackBerry users to remove the Etisalat update.

However, if the spying allegations are true, what remains unclear is why Etisalat felt the need to deliberately infect its customers’ phones with spyware in the first place.

RIM said the patch Etisalat issued appeared to be designed and distributed by SS8 Networks, a US software surveillance firm. According to SS8’s website, it has supplied lawful interception devices to help hundreds of service providers “meet regulatory requirements and satisfy the needs of law enforcement.”

SS8 established its presence in the UAE in February this year when it acquired OCI Mobile, a technology provider that specialised in providing surveillance solutions to government organisations.

No one was available to comment from SS8 Networks.

The number of malware programmes — software designed to infiltrate technology devices without their owner’s consent — is on the rise globally, according to Hamed Diab, regional director of the Middle East and North Africa for software security firm McAfee.

“According to the FBI, they’ve seen a 33 percent increase in loss of data between 2007 and 2008 and that’s a value that keeps on growing expediently,” he says.

“From our surveillance, there were about two million malware [programmes] last year and that was five times the number of [such programmes in] 2007.”

Daniel V Hoffman, chief technology officer of US security software firm SMobile Sytems, says the scandal demonstrates the need for smartphone users to ensure their devices contained security software to protect not only their emails, but their identity and financial transactions.

“The truth about smartphones is that they are used in the same manner as personal computers and are susceptible to the same threats,” he warns.

Ultimately, the painful outcome from the fiasco for Etisalat could be felt in the form of lost revenue as customers vote with their feet by ditching the telecoms provider in favour of its smaller but fast growing rival du.

du has already been quick to reassure its BlackBerry subscribers that it would not deploy any software not approved by RIM that risked the usability or performance of the devices.

“For Etisalat, it seems to be a brewing PR problem as they don’t seem to be addressing the concerns of their customers affected. From a business point of view, if those customers feel misled they will switch to du,” says Matthew Reed, senior analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media in Dubai.

Reed’s comments appear to be borne out by an Arabian Business online poll conducted in the wake of the spyware scandal which shows that more than half of Etisalat’s BlackBerry customers are planning to leave the UAE telecoms provider.

Some 36 percent of BlackBerry users who took part in the poll said they would cancel their Etisalat contract “immediately” and switch to du.

“We continue to receive new enquires about our BlackBerry offering but it would be impossible to attribute these enquires to any one reason in particular,” says Saugat Chatterjee, PR manager for brand and communications at du.

Only time will tell how badly the spyware scandal will dent customer confidence in Etisalat as a service and a brand.

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HD 11 years ago

i cant say i would necessarily switch providers because of the spying issue given that we live in a country with no rules or regulations in terms of privacy and I am sure that we were already being spied on with all other handsets, so what makes this so different? However compensation is due considering that they ruined peoples days and harmed business because of phones running out of battery and burning out.

Julian 11 years ago

Reporters without Borders have now sent Etisilat an open letter demanding that they respond further to the accusations. http://www.rsf.org/Spyware-on-BlackBerry-phones.html