June 19, 2007 8:08 pm

BlackBerry ban for French cabinet

Members of the new French cabinet have been told to stop using their BlackBerries because of fears that the US could intercept state secrets.

The SGDN, which is responsible for national security, has banned the use of the personal data assistants by anyone in the president’s or prime minister’s offices on the basis of “a very real risk of interception” by third parties.

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The ban has been prompted by SGDN concerns that the BlackBerry system is based on servers located in the US and the UK, and that highly sensitive strategic information being passed between French ministers could fall into foreign hands.

A confidential study carried out two years ago by Alain Juillet, the civil servant in charge of economic intelligence, found that the BlackBerry posed “a data security problem”.

Mr Juillet noted that US bankers would prove their bona fides in meetings by first placing their Black­Berries on the table and removing the batteries.

Although the foreign ministry is thought to have long taken heed of an earlier ban on the use of BlackBerries, members of other government departments are said to have been still secretly using the devices.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is often seen with a mobile phone clamped to his ear and was engrossed in calls for much of his election day victory parade in Paris.

But Mr Sarkozy and his cabinet colleagues face limits on their embrace of the digital age. Ministers have complained that the SGDN went ahead with the ban but has still to provide advice on alternative options. “They don’t seem to operate in the same time frame as us,” complained one.

The BlackBerry has become the favoured communications accessory of bankers, journalists and others, but the government is following an example set by the French private sector. Total, the oil company, has never allowed its staff to use the BlackBerry, also for “security reasons” according to the company. “There are plenty of other perfectly good PDAs,” Total said.

Le Monde, which first reported the ban on Tuesday, said officials feared messages could be intercepted by US agencies such as the National Security Agency because they ran through servers in the US and Britain.

It quoted Alain Juillet, an official in charge of economic intelligence issues as saying that the Blackberry “poses a problem of data security”.

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