Internet security: Behind BlackBerry ban, rising concerns over smartphones

The spat between BlackBerry and Middle East governments is part of a growing debate over Internet security in a mobile age.

The smartphones and other portable devices that allow people to send emails, transfer bank funds, and hold remote meetings can also be used by dissidents and terrorists to challenge governments. So the more that commercial wireless systems try to protect data from prying eyes, the more authoritarian and even democratic regimes worry about plots.

The BlackBerry is of particular concern to some governments because it encrypts wireless data and uses a closed network to route it unlike other smartphones that use various e-mail services and whose data often travel openly via the Internet. The security is so good that the US government reportedly allows military and law enforcement employees to send confidential messages via BlackBerry.

But that level of security worries Saudi Arabia, which says it will ban a key portion of BlackBerry’s service Friday, and the UAE, which says it will halt BlackBerry data services, such as e-mail, texting, and Internet browsing, unless the company allows it to monitor its data transmissions. BlackBerry is made by the Canadian firm Research in Motion (RIM).

It’s not just the Middle East. India has expressed similar concerns in the past.

The flip side, however, is that companies and individuals are increasingly demanding higher levels of encryption and security because of threats they’re facing.

The threats are coming from the outside, such as smartphone viruses that drain batteries or send random international calls. Sometimes, the threat comes from the inside.

In a survey published last month, for example, 67 percent of information-technology professionals said they had accessed data that wasn’t relevant to their role and 41 percent said they had used administrative passwords to snoop on sensitive or confidential information, according to Cyber-Ark Software, a Newton, Mass., security firm that conducted the survey.

The controversy for RIM comes at a sensitive time for the company, as it’s launch a new model, the BlackBerry Torch 9800, which it help in a market-share battle with products like Apple’s iPhone.