Just the other day, Canadian BlackBerry manufacturer RIM (Research In Motion) had their largest global launch ever for their new operating system. In this highly competitive smartphone market, timing is everything. Unfortunately for RIM, this launch happened shortly before the rioting in London last week, in which it was implicated (whether they were implicated fairly or unfairly is debatable).
Using the Blackberry messenger application, BBM, English rioters and looters were able to orchestrate mayhem by outwitting authorities by rapidly organising themselves through the popular app. Although BlackBerry’s are normally associated with white-collar corporates keeping up with their emails, they are used by 37% of teens in Britain, according to UK communicator regulator, Ofcom. However, at the same time it needs to be said that civilians and shopkeepers were also able to circulate messages of warning to friends, family members, and colleagues in order to keep an eye on the direction the mayhem was spreading.
Thus, all involved were able to communicate under the radar, so to speak. This ability is further enhanced by the fact that BlackBerry automatically encrypts messages sent to another person’s BlackBerry using their PIN, as well as using the internet rather than the mobile phone network, making it hard for governments to intercept messages.
Despite the business risk associated with compromising customer privacy, BlackBerry’s official UK Twitter account publicly announced that the company was co-operating with British police, saying that “We feel for those impacted by recent days’ riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.” However, on Saturday, a media watchdog voiced concern at the co-operation between British authorities and BlackBerry to unveil the identity of rioters in London and other cities. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB) asked in a statement “What consequences will this co-operation have on respect for the privacy of BlackBerry users?” If information provided by RIM leads to arrests of law-breakers, “questions will be raised about the validity of the evidence and the legality of the way it was acquired”, explains RWB.
By providing such information to authorities, a “disturbing precedent” was being set by a western nation which could have consequences such as “setting an example for other kinds of government”. In the past, RIM had been pressured by repressive governments in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to filter websites, give access to user data, or to waver the censorship of encrypted services.
Whether this will lead to a loss in consumer confidence remains to be seen. On the whole, this might seem even trivial to RIM’s more pressing problems, taking Google’s recent acquisition of the Motorola Mobility into account. This leaves RIM a smaller player relative to rivals, which may force it to strike an alliance with another company or sell itself to remain competitive. In a recent Bloomberg article, independent wireless analyst, Chetan Sharma, says that this leaves RIM in “no man’s land at this point”.
I am curious to see who RIM will choose as a potential ally. Morgan Keegan’s analyst, Tavis McCourt, says, “Long term, everybody is looking for a dance partner and RIM had better find one. This is getting to be a business where you need to be really big to compete.”