Monday, July 09, 2012

Mobile Monopoly #RIM

Governments don't like monopolies.  Except when they have no choice (at which point they usually, but not always, bring in constricting regulation).  Windows on the desktop might be considered an example where governments have had little or no choice. Today, though, there is a real option of moving to a Bring Your Own Device model though I think this is still rare in government (even the Government Digital Service which is perhaps the most relaxed about these kinds of things still buys Macs for its staff).

There is, though, a complete monopoly in the mobile world.  Every single central government department that wants to allow on the move access to email supports only one device, a Blackberry.  This is because, today, it's the only device that is accredited to run at Restricted (otherwise known as IL3) level.  All central government departments (and many that connect to those) run at this level, mostly because they connect to the GSI which kind of forces you there.  That said, most emails sent and received to or from these devices are, of course, not about important matters of state - doubtless 20% are about what's for lunch, a further 20% about whether the squash court is free, 40% about information that is already subject to FoI and the remaining 20% might be considered to be sensitive in some way, thought perhaps only a quarter of that is truly restricted.

If you're curious about IL3, for something to be classified at that level it needs to demonstrate any one of the following:

- Risk to an individual's personal safety or liberty
- Minor loss of confidence in government
- Make it more difficult to maintain the operational effectiveness or security of UK or allied forces
- Cause embarrasssment to diplomatic relations
- Disadvantage a major UK company
- Damage unique intelligence operations
- Hinder the detection or impede the investigation of low level crime

You can see, I think, how hard they are to assess for any given email and so perhaps understand why it's easier for everything to be classified as restricted rather than to assess any individual mail.

The Blackberry has achieved the hallowed status of IL3 because Research In Motion (RIM), the parent company, actively focused on it - and then ran away with it whilst everyone else just watched.  It was a genius move made all the more astonishing as they then failed to capitalise on it and offer more services - after all, their servers were on the inside of the government firewall; you couldn't ask for a better position.  They would have gone through a lengthy process of review and certification, submitted their code for review, agreed to provide tools that disabled the camera, Bluetooth, web browsing and pretty much everything that actually made the device useful.  And so they monopolised the market - in the UK, the USA and, I imagine, pretty much everywhere.  Even though all of the emails wing their sweet way to Canada and back, no state is worried because the encryption is all at the device end (hence the panic when nations such as the UAE and India asked to be able to see emails composed on Blackberries).

RIM is now facing all sorts of problems (how fast it has come - in 2007 I certainly didn't see the big switch.  Within weeks it may look nothing like it does now.  It could, perhaps, be owned by a Chinese company such as Huawei (something that would probably not bother the British or the Canadians but would certainly both the US government), it could be broken up into several pieces (with its patents going one way, its BBM service another and its hardware division being offered on eBay).  RIM claim to be readying a new operating system (and hardware device ranger) based on an operating system that has never previously been used on mobile devices (the Playbook excepted, though I think that really doesn't count) and that lacks a comprehensive set of published APIs that developers could access so as to speed production of applications.  They announced only the other day that this new release would be much delayed - certainly into 2013.  It's easy to speculate that it will never see the light of day because RIM, by then, will realise that they just can't catch up with iOS6 or Jelly Bean or whatever is on the market by the time they do think they're done.

So with RIM fading (and perhaps already finished as I've written before), it must be time for government to open up to alternatives - potentially ones that would allow even greater productivity rather than shutting down all of the interesting features in today's mobile devices.  After all, the Blackberry has been ensconced in this monopoly position for nearly 10 years - a time in which the mobile market has turned itself inside out perhaps 3 or even 4 times.

UK government is now doing one thing that could blast this market right open - looking at moving away from the current IL0 to IL6 to a far simpler model.


Some have entirely misunderstood what this move is about and labelled it has halving the number of impact levels.  In fact - and this is by no means confirmed yet but it looks that way - within the next few weeks we will see guidelines published that move much of Government's day to day traffic (perhaps as much as the 95% I suggest above) to a new level of accreditation which would be roughly equivalent to IL2.  Suddenly, vast numbers of new entrants could bring products to market (collaboration, email, social networks, project planning tools etc) and a new set of mobile devices would be eligible for government use, including Apple, Android and Windows.  This change in impact levels need not reduce security or increase the risk of data loss - devices would still be protected with various types of management software and could be wiped remotely (with plenty of choices available on the market).

At the same time, I hear talk that other device manufacturers are investing in the accreditation process to bring their device security up to the current IL3 level - not a daft move given that other countries or are not as progressive as the UK are also monopolised by Blackberry and would like alternatives.

Surely it is then a short step away from Windows pervasively on the desktop to other computers, whether they be iPads, Macs, Linux or whatever?