Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

BlackBerrys as vanguard of revolution

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In the early 1980s, when I was reporting for television, I walked up and down a business street on camera with a bulky telecommunications device in my hand. It was big enough to give your arm a reasonable workout and was a mockup of the about-to-be launched new-fangled cellphone service.

At the end of the piece, I looked down and said that in the future, "Maybe you'll be able to wear a cellphone on your wrist, just like Dick Tracy."

By the time the cellphone became smaller, no one could remember who Dick Tracy was and the flip-open designs for the device were mimicking the Star Trek communicator ("Beam me up Scottie") rather than the futuristic invention for a 1930s mythic detective.

It is hard now to credit the skepticism that greeted the launch of cellphones a generation ago. Why, many asked, would people bother to buy an expensive mobile phone when they could so easily use any of the conveniently located pay booths? Why indeed?

This week's launch of the new Blackberry Torch and the coincident international controversy over the way BlackBerry protects the privacy of its e-mail clients reminds us just how revolutionary the changes in communications have been.

It's not just a technological revolution. Looking back, I am convinced that the technological changes in communications have been a major factor in the spread of democracy and increases in personal freedom throughout the world.

Information breeds power. The communications revolution has made it impossible for governments (North Korea is the obvious exception) to keep their citizens in the dark about what happens beyond their borders.

Before satellite delivery of television signals, countries like South Africa could severely restrict what their population could see. Notoriously, the apartheid government of South Africa restricted its viewers to watching their censored television in black and white. Once people could pick up signals on huge backyard dishes and get news and pictures of what went on in other societies, the ability to control information started to erode.

East Germans could see West German television, as the speed of communications increased it became more and more difficult to keep populations in the dark.

As the Internet gathered strength, the ability of totalitarian regimes to subjugate the masses became more and more difficult.

I may be stretching it, but I think that the end of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the spread of democracy in South America and in Eastern Europe all were spurred at least in part by the communications revolution.

When you can message, send e-mails and pictures of demonstrations, revolts, crackdowns and abuses around the world in an instant, it becomes more and more difficult to put a lid on dissent. In a world of instant communications, dissent is rarely isolated. Because it spreads, it becomes more difficult to contain.

The effects of the technological revolution are still being felt. It is why China tried to restrict the Google service. Too much information was being passed that the Chinese authorities would prefer to keep hidden. Twitter was the main source of protest and news from Iran after the disputed presidential elections last year.

The dark side of the spread of information is that what is available to protesters can also inform governments. That's what is behind the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and India's threat to shutdown some of Blackberry's service because they cannot monitor the information the devices are passing between customers.

This is a delicate issue. RIM, the Canadian maker of the BlackBerry, touts the first-class security encryption of its e-mail service as a major benefit of its smart phones over competitors like the Google-based Android and Apple's iPhone. Government security services find tapping into the BlackBerry exceedingly hard. What's good for businesses wanting to keep their information secret, however, is also good for criminals and terrorists.

Tracking information across cellphones and the Internet has become a major tool for police forces tracking identity theft, credit and debit card scamming and other crimes. It can also be a tool for tracking terrorists' plots and, in the extreme, plots hatched to overthrow governments and incite insurrection.

But here is where the good and bad effects of the communications revolution run into one another. What exactly do we want Saudi Arabia's security forces to be able to track? What, for that matter, do we want the Canadian or United States' governments to be able to see and hear? The principle is that in a democratic country, authorities need a warrant for "wire-tapping" and that should include tapping of emails. That's a good principle that should be used sparingly.

BlackBerry encrypts its smart phone messages for a reason. That reason has to do with confidentiality. Canadian and American governments should make it clear internationally they support the privacy of communication that the BlackBerry devices provide.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 5, 2010 A10

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