When 145,000 Blackberry users in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) received this message from operator Etisalat, the majority of them went ahead and downloaded the supposed upgrade. But what they had agreed to was more than just an "ultimate experience" - they had just opened access to all their messages.
Telecoms giant Etisalat sent the message at the beginning of July. It included an invitation to download a programme which would facilitate the handover between GSM and 3G networks. But users who downloaded the programme noticed it was slowing down their handsets and rapidly using up the battery, leading them to look into the details of the patch.
What they discovered was much worse than expected. The software was nothing more than spyware created by SS8 Network, a Californian company specialised in "lawful interception and surveillance solutions".
In a press release dated July 17 Canadian Blackberry manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) made it clear that the programme was unofficial and offered guidelines to users in removing the application from their handsets. Etisalat however denied that it were spyware and brushed off the problems as the result of a "slight technical fault" for a minority of users when downloading updates. They refused to offer any further explanation, and as yet, reasons to why they encouraged users to install the spyware, and whether any private information was retrieved, remain unknown.
“A flagrant violation of individual liberties; like a stranger looking at your personal computer, your emails and your pictures”
Lubna Abdulaziz is a banker in Dubai. She's a Blackberry user with Etisalat and was one of those who downloaded the "upgrade".
When I got the message from Etisalat I clicked on the link included. I had a pop-up screen asking me to download the programme. Then I was asked to restart my Blackberry. But an hour later, my battery was dead. I asked a friend who told me to go to the application menu which lists all applications and deny all connections. My battery performed a little bit better but still ran out quickly. So I formatted my Blackberry and transferred the backed-up phone numbers. But the usage was still not right. All my friends, except one, downloaded this upgrade and complained about battery problems. Everybody's talking about it in the Emirates.
Etisalat just issued a statement saying that it was an upgrade problem but offered no compensation to users. When RIM released the statement about it being spyware, we were furious. What they did is a flagrant violation of individual liberties. It's like a stranger looking at your personal computer, your emails and your pictures. It's unacceptable. Etisalat already stores text messages on a server, and it looks as though they wanted to do the same thing with the Blackberry. This breach of privacy was too much. I'm thinking now of either switching to another service provider or buying a new Blackberry."