Trust issues?

The oft-ignored Blackberry has been thrust into the spotlight over its potential as a tool to subvert national security. But how right were we to trust it in the first place? Imthishan Giado investigates.

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Trust issues? Our people expect that you receive the e-mail – you can’t come and say that you weren’t in the office, says Dubal’s Al Mulla.
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By  Imthishan Giado Published  September 15, 2010 Network Middle East Logo

The oft-ignored Blackberry has been thrust into the spotlight over its potential as a tool to subvert national security. But how right were we to trust it in the first place? Imthishan Giado investigates.

Ten years ago, if someone asked you if it was safe to put personal data on mobile phones, you’d probably have laughed out loud.

After all, what could you possibly have stored on the devices of the time? Even the best handsets circa 2000 lacked colour screens, expandable memory, sync capabilities – the list is endless. For that matter, most struggled to store more than 150 hundred contacts which today wouldn’t even scratch the surface of anyone’s Facebook friend list, let alone a thousand Blackberry Messenger (BBM) contacts.

But today, we expect so much more from our handsets. Who remembers telephone numbers any more? Store it in your mobile phone. Who remembers what time a film’s starting? Check it online via your 3G internet connection. Who bothers selecting a playlist for your music? Just bring it all with you on a memory card. And who bothers to check their e-mail via their laptop’s copy of Outlook, when you can always be up to date with a Blackberry?

When one considers that most people are now also integrating their social media profiles and associated data into their handsets or often engage in bouts of online shopping via their phone’s built-in web browser, you’ll start to understand that there is a not-inconsquential – in fact, frankly serious – amount of personal data being stored on the average Blackberry. Mix that up with equally vast amounts of corporate data including e-mail and documents and you have the beginnings of a security problem.

One would be remiss in not considering the current state of Blackberries in this part of the world, as both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are threatening bans on the services provided by the devices unless Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian manufacturer of the phones, provides a way for them to monitor all traffic. But that’s not the question we’re asking. What we’re asking is quite simply: how did the Blackberry explode in popularity so quickly among enterprises? Is e-mail really all they’re used for? And most importantly – if governments don’t trust them, can the average enterprise afford to?

Popularity breeds contempt

Blackberries have been in use in the enterprise world since the late 1990s, yet they only officially arrived on the shores of the region in the mid-2000s. But many who travelled overseas to Western Europe and the US found themselves enamoured of the device.

Guru Prasad, GM, strategic alliances and channel development at regional distributor FVC was one such individual. His firm has officially been using it for a year and a half but as a frequent business traveller, he’s well versed in its vagaries.

“Personally as a corporate user, I’ve been using it for 11 years now. Before that we had push e-mail on various kinds of devices from Symbian to Windows-based OSes. Before that, we used primarily Nokia with Nokia IntelliSync. The experience was not optimum, it left a lot to be desired and also more importantly was the convenience and the cost-effectiveness. The Blackberry servers bring all three advantages together which other solutions couldn’t do at that point of time.”

Ahmad Al Mulla vice president of IT at Dubai Aluminium (Dubal) has been using Blackberries for the past four years – actually before the official introduction, but in the beginning experienced a mixture of distrust and hostility from his senior management, who did not quite understand why they needed it. Fast forward to the present, however, and he says they are now a highly integrated part of his workplace.

“The main use really is e-mail, which people can conveniently access from anywhere. It replaces your mobile as well, so other features are there. It helps a lot because if you go to meetings outside of the office or wherever, you don’t get a call or an SMS, you receive an e-mail. You can actually proactively approach people. Our people expect that you receive an e-mail and then respond quickly – you can’t come and say that you weren’t in the office,” he warns.

It’s no secret, says Nick Black, technical manager for the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa at Trend Micro why all these companies opted for Blackberries – it’s because they were built with enterprises, rather than consumers in mind.

“Blackberries generally are pretty user friendly. The fact that they were the first to have a fully comprehensive enterprise solution on a handheld device is also important. The first people to enter a market typically dominate for some time afterwards. They really were the only solution available at the time. Recently though, their competitors have caught up with them and in some cases overtaken them,” he states.

Fashionably late

There’s certainly been a mad rush among virtually every regional enterprise to adopt the devices and support them. But where did security lie in the priority list – and were people simply following the overseas fashion trends? For Black, the answer is not clear cut.

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