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Report: RIM to let Saudis monitor BlackBerry data

BlackBerry maker Research in Motion has decided to allow the government of Saudi Arabia access to BlackBerry users' messages, in order to avoid a ban on the device in the country.

In a preliminary agreement, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion has decided to allow the government of Saudi Arabia access to BlackBerry users' messages, in order to avoid a ban on the device in the country, the Associated Press reported Saturday.

The AP quoted an official at the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission as saying that the deal between RIM and the government would likely involve placing a BlackBerry server inside the country to enable the Saudis to monitor data.

RIM did not respond to a call from CNET for comment by publication time.

The Saudi government said earlier this week that it would order the country's three wireless carriers to block the popular BlackBerry device as of Friday if the government could not reach an agreement with RIM. The device apparently wasn't blocked outright Friday, but service may have been disrupted.

The Saudis have expressed concern that the BlackBerry, which features exceptionally strong privacy safeguards, could be used by terrorists to avoid detection. The U.S. government and others have acknowledged that danger but have voiced their own concerns about protecting freedom of speech. The Saudi government blocks some Internet content for political reasons, and some have suggested that the pressure on RIM is an effort by the country to exert more control over communications.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly RIM's largest market in the Middle East, with about 700,000 BlackBerry users. It has not been alone in its objections to the device. The country's neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, has also announced intentions to block the BlackBerry, and Lebanon, Algeria, and India have pressured RIM as well.

RIM in particular is being targeted because it uses stronger data encryption for business customers than its smartphone rivals. It also routes e-mail traffic through its own network of servers, including many in its home country of Canada, making it harder for countries to tap into servers to read e-mail and intercept other data.

Prior to Saturday, Research In Motion had resisted demands to modify its server network, as well as other efforts to regulate the BlackBerry. Last year, the state-owned mobile operator in the United Arab Emirates encouraged BlackBerry users there to install a "performance enhancement patch." RIM criticized the patch as spyware and published instructions on how to remove it, saying it could "enable unauthorized access to private or confidential information stored on the user's smart phone." The carrier denied that claim.

In a report Friday, Reuters quoted an analyst in the Middle East as saying that placing a RIM server in a country would be similar to handing that government a "master key" to the BlackBerry.

Update, Saturday at 5:24 p.m. PDT: Late Saturday, The Wall Street Journal, which also reported that a RIM server will be set up in Saudi Arabia, said the country's Communication and Information Technology Commission had announced that it had extended the beginning of its ban on the BlackBerry two days, until the end of the day Monday, to evaluate preliminary solutions. Bloomberg also reported the extension, citing the state-run Saudi Press Agency.