It is not in my nature to subscribe to conspiracy theories even though we have plenty of them around in the Middle East. So this may come as a surprise to many when I say that I have come up with my very own conspiracy theory for what some believe was a botched attempt by Etisalat to install surveillance software on its BlackBerry subscriber’s devices last month. (Etisalat has said that the upgrades were required for service enhancements.)
America’s chaotic and numerous intelligence agencies were caught unawares by the events of September 11, 2001 and the country went through a rigorous process of review and consolidation of its 22 intelligence services including the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency (NSA). The US government then decided that in order to protect itself it had to venture beyond its borders once again on a substantial scale to collect information on specific individuals in potential hot spots. The Middle East is as hot as it gets. A series of steps were taken including the introduction of the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Improvement and Enhancement Act (Fisa) of 2006”. This “improved” Fisa act was expanded to include foreign-to-foreign phone calls, e-mails and text messages (yes, yours).
Anyone who thinks in this day and age that their credit card details, SMS messages, e-mails and GSM phone conversations aren’t accessible by a number of foreign intelligence organisations (no matter how many assurances you get) is either naive or hasn’t read enough about technology. BlackBerry calls and data messages aren’t any different.
The UAE has no history of spying on individuals and is known as a beacon of progress, tolerance and modernity in the region. But the US budget for intelligence is more than $47 billon, not to mention the more than $500 billion the US spends on defence. Basically, nobody should think they can stop them from eavesdropping, not even Etisalat.
It is simply naive of us to believe that the more than 200 million American customers of Verizon, AT&T and the rest are subject to surveillance but that people in Europe, the Middle East and Asia are not. In fact, the process of collecting such information is well established, known as “data mining”. This process is not meant to record the conversations of every single individual. Instead, it monitors various patterns and specific words that may indicate suspicious behaviour. According to a report in USA Today, a congressional investigation found that Fisa, which was first introduced in 1952 during the Korean War, has been used to intercept international phone conversations since 1975 and currently employs mathematicians to constantly improve their code-cracking techniques to keep up with new technology.
The manufacturer of the Blackberry, Research in Motion, released a well worded press release about the Etisalat patch, but never stated that it is not possible for others to eavesdrop on a BlackBerry – only that it had nothing to do with the “testing, promotion or distribution of this software application”. Contrary to what was stated in the recent press release, that “a third-party patch cannot provide any enhancements to network services”, the US president Barack Obama recently reconfigured his BlackBerry 8830 out of the fears that it could be used to track his location or that foreign intelligence organisations (friend and foe alike) could tune in. After all, if Israel, America’s best “frenemy”, was suspected of spying on meetings and telephone calls in the US during the good old days of the Bush administration, then it is naive to think that it won’t spy on Barack “anti-settlement-expansion” Obama.
If people in the UAE are genuinely worried about their personal e-mails and chatting sessions being seen by others then they can opt for the Sectera Edge, a mobile phone device developed especially for the National Security Agency by the Virginia-based company, General Dynamics. The ability to have only the NSA have the option of reading your e-mails or listening in on your calls will set you back Dh12,000.
Truthfully, Etisalat should not be so easily condemned for what happened. Had the upgrade not drained the battery so quickly, chances are few would have even been bothered by it. But this episode has probably made the inevitable fact of installing “upgrades” on other Middle Eastern telecoms providers very challenging.
Etisalat’s sometimes erratic service warrants an article all on its own but in this case I have a hunch that things may not be exactly as they appear. Then again, it may just be another Middle Eastern conspiracy theory.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday, 2nd August 2009