Etisalat’s BlackBerry patch designed for surveillance

Expert says software developed by surveillance firm SS8

Tags: BlackBerryEmirates Telecommunications CorporationResearch In MotionSmartphoneUnited Arab Emirates
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By  George Bevir Published  July 14, 2009

The battery-sapping "performance patch" that Etisalat sent to its BlackBerry subscribers over the last few days was designed to give the UAE operator the ability to read its customers emails and text messages, a Qatar-based software expert told CommsMEA yesterday.

Last week, Etisalat told its 100,000 BlackBerry subscribers that a "performance enhancement patch" would be sent to them to "provide the best BlackBerry service and ultimate experience". But users who downloaded the software complained of dramatically reduced battery life and slower than usual performance of their devices.

Nigel Gourlay, a Doha-based Sun-certified Java programmer who has been developing open source software for 15 years, analysed the patch after it was posted on BlackBerry’s community support forum and he said that once installed, it potentially gives Etisalat the power to view all emails and text messages sent from the BlackBerry.

“I don’t think it’s been designed for a large scale deployment,” he said. “They have released it as an upgrade across all UAE BlackBerry handsets, all of which have tried to phone home to this one registration server at the same time, and that has effectively brought the server to its knees. When the BlackBerry cannot register itself, it tries again and this causes the battery drain.”

Gourlay pointed out that by default the system is turned off and when it installs the only message that is sent is an initial registration message, and that later on, Etisalat could turn on the systems “one by one”.

Once installed, one of the possible commands that can be sent to the device is "start", which would then cause any subsequent message to be forwarded to an Etisalat website.

Gourlay said the patch was stamped with “SS8.com”, the name of a US-based software developer that describes itself as an electronic surveillance solutions company that develops products that “allow intelligence agencies to recognise, monitor, investigate and prevent criminal activity”.

It appears as though the use of such software is widespread among telecom operators, and according to SS8’s website, its products are used by “some of the largest service providers in the world”.

On Sunday Etisalat issued a two paragraph statement apologising for “a phased software upgrade…that led to extra consumption of the handset battery”. It described the patch as a “routine upgrade process”, but said it had stopped issuing it as a precautionary measure.

At the time of writing the operator had not responded to requests sent yesterday (Monday) for further details about the precise purpose of the patch or Etisalat’s relationship with “lawful interception solutions” firm SS8.

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.

According to SS8’s website, the founder of OCI Mobile, Derek Roga, developed technology for smartphone interception and in 2005 he was tasked with introducing the firm’s BlackBerry solution to the Middle East. Roga was also the founder of Dubai-based EMS Mobile, which became RIM’s strategic channel partner for the Middle East region and Etisalat’s partner when the operator launched the BlackBerry in May 2006.

Roga did not respond to messages left at his office in the UAE, and no one from SS8’s US office replied to any messages from CommsMEA at the time of writing.

“The interesting thing is that no one would have known about it if they’d set up the registration server correctly,” Gourlay added. “The whole thing wouldn’t have been reported apart from the battery drain. I think that this whole system has been designed for law enforcement agencies to be deployed on a few dozen suspects’ BlackBerry devices.”

RIM was also unavailable for comment.

1847 days ago
Rebel

My daughter living in USA has been having this happen on her blackberry phone. She couldn't get anyone to believe her or understand.

1876 days ago
James Murgatroyd

Oh come on - either you are an Etisalat plant or naive to the point of stupidity. Of course the Gov't wish to monitor all in and outbound BB traffic - it makes it easier to snoop on the activities of its subversive residents. If Etisilat are so superb, why did they block attempts by 4 overseas operators to start ops in the UAE (At&T, BT, France Telecom & Vodafone)? Time to spit up that pill you swallowed son.

1881 days ago
Maram Zawaideh

I believe people are over-reacting to the update sent by Etisalat it might be a mistake or unintentional incident that caused negative results, but such incidents happen especially if Etisalat was testing some modifications. I do not think Etisalat needs such tool to make spying on its customer and i believe this harming rumors against Etisalat aims to divert its customers away i was affected but there are solutions and thanks to who tried to help us solve it but i wish we can support our telecom network as well by being positive and thinking positive and acting positive as well. i personally admire their achievements, progress and efficiency thanks to all the proactive positive people who can provide support and reduce doubts which are far from reality

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