ISLAMABAD: BlackBerry Ltd will delay shutting down its operations in Pakistan until December 30, as negotiations continue over the government demands for access to users’ private data, the company and the telecoms authority said on Monday.
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had in July demanded BlackBerry give it access to its BlackBerry Enterprise Services, which encrypt data such as emails and instant messages, or shut it down by November 30. The PTA on Monday then suggested a one-month extension to that deadline, its chairman, Syed Ismail Shah said. BlackBerry also confirmed the extension in a statement on its website. “The level of access is still under discussion,” Shah said. “We can extend the deadline and they can continue to work until then.”
Pakistan has said it needs access to maintain its security, with police saying criminals use secure communications like those provided by BlackBerry. Analysts say the government is increasing electronic surveillance to target activists, politicians and journalists. Earlier on Monday, BlackBerry Chief Operating Officer Marty Beard confirmed in a statement posted to the smartphone makers’ website that the company will not operate in Pakistan after November 30. “Pakistan’s demand for open access to monitor a significant swath of our customers’ communications within its borders left us no choice but to exit the country entirely,” Beard had said.
The COO said the company made the move because “remaining in Pakistan would have meant forfeiting our commitment to protect our users’ privacy”. Beard said: “In July, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority notified the country’s mobile phone operators that BlackBerry’s BES servers would no longer be allowed to operate in the country starting in December ‘for security reasons’.” PTA spokesman Khurram Mehran said. “We are still in contact with BlackBerry Limited to find out a solution. BlackBerry was earlier asked to provide access to BlackBerry Enterprise Services (BES) till Nov 30, 2015.”
PTA officials have said that BlackBerry had been sent a notice in July 2015 regarding security concerns related to the company’s BES offering and that the company had been given a deadline of November 30 for discontinuation of the service. They said that BlackBerry has been cooperating with security agencies of other countries, but despite requests from Pakistani authorities, they were not cooperating in accordance with the National Action Plan formulated after the December 16 Taliban attacks on Peshawar’s Army Public School.
Beard, in his post, goes on to say the Pakistani government wanted the ability to monitor all BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) traffic in the country, including emails and BlackBerry Messenger messages. “Pakistan’s demand was not a question of public safety; we are more than happy to assist law enforcement agencies in investigations of criminal activity. Rather, Pakistan was essentially demanding unfettered access to all of our BES customers’ information,” the COO said. Director BoloBhi and digital rights activist Farieha Aziz said the situation in Pakistan was getting worse, not better, as companies to whom privacy of data and protection of speech is important would be wary of establishing a presence in the country.