Privacy, Security Concerns Raised for BlackBerry, Phone, Web Users

BY Dave Gustafson   August 2, 2010 at 2:35 PM EDT

It’s been a busy few days for online privacy and personal tech. Here’s a breakdown of some of the latest major developments:

Banned in Abu Dhabi

Flickr photo via Creative Commons/Ninja M.If you were planning to update your friends and coworkers about your trip to Abu Dhabi via your BlackBerry, you might need to make other plans. The United Arab Emirates is planning to suspend e-mail, messaging and Web browsing services for BlackBerry owners over legal and national security concerns – a move that neighboring Saudi Arabia is also apparently considering.

India has raised similar concerns recently. What’s at issue is the encrypted nature of the data shared on BlackBerries – something that some governments would like to see. The Financial Times explains:

> BlackBerry services, such as e-mail and instant messaging, use internal encrypted networks that are difficult for governments to monitor. It is the only data services provider operating in the UAE that exports its data offshore and denies authorities access to its systems.

The move would affect more than 500,000 users in the UAE, The Associated Press reports:

Critics of the crackdown say it is also a way for the country’s conservative government to further control content they deem politically or morally objectionable. The smart phones enjoy a following not only among the region’s professionals, but also among tech-savvy youth who see their relatively secure communication channels as a way to avoid unwanted government attention.

BlackBerry parent company Research in Motion Ltd. has been targeted by the UAE before:

Last year, RIM criticized a directive by the UAE state-owned mobile operator Etisalat telling the company’s BlackBerry users to install software described as a service upgrade. Tests showed the download actually installed spy software on users’ phones that could allow authorities to access private information stored on the handsets. It strongly distanced itself from Etisalat’s decision and told users how to remove the software.

The $1,500 Cell Phone Eavesdropping Kit

At the weekend DEF CON hacker conference in Las Vegas, a computer security demonstrated how he could hijack and record cell phone calls for the price of a Mac laptop. Wired explains how Chris Paget exposed a security flaw in a technology used by billions of cell phone users around the world every day:

Just turning on the antennas caused two dozen phones in the room to connect to Paget’s tower. He then set it to spoof an AT&T tower to capture calls from customers of that carrier.

“As far as your cell phones are concerned, I am now indistinguishable from AT&T,” he said. “Every AT&T cell phone in the room will gradually start handing over to my network.”

During the demonstration, only about 30 phones were actually connecting to his tower. Paget says it can take time for phones to find the signal and hand off to the tower, but there are methods for speeding up that process.

The Business of Your Personal Information

The Wall Street Journal has delved into the big business of tracking online habits and preferences in its “What They Know” series, including an interactive graphic of how some major websites track your information.

Reporter Nick WIngfield reports how the developers Microsoft’s Internet Explorer — still the most popular Web browser in the worlddebated default privacy settings:

In the end, the product planners lost a key part of the debate. The winners: executives who argued that giving automatic privacy to consumers would make it tougher for Microsoft to profit from selling online ads. Microsoft built its browser so that users must deliberately turn on privacy settings every time they start up the software.

Microsoft has recently defended its actions though.

The Journal created a video explaining how “behavioral targeting” and web cookies work and how some companies are getting around ways that people have tried to protect their privacy:

We’ll have more on these stories on Monday’s NewsHour broadcast. Be sure to tune in.