BlackBerry intrigue – spymasters of the world unite!

9 Aug 2010

In his evaluation of the week that was, Siliconrepublic editor John Kennedy looks into the Saudi demands that BlackBerry open its networks to its security masters or be shut down and asks what has happened to the free world?

Something had to give. In a world where digital breadcrumbs that we leave everywhere present not only a treasure trove for governments, industrial spies and jilted lovers, BlackBerry’s iron clad security system was evidently too much for the spooks in Saudi, UAE and India.

And now, it seems, they are determined to access the BlackBerry servers – kept secure at Research In Motion’s data centres in Canada – to ensure that in today’s veiled cyber wars that make the Cold War seem like a walk in the park no data can be kept from the spooks.

Think about it – imagine if during the Cold War your Eastern or Western spy had the firepower that exists in an average consumer mobile phone. The ability to send covert messages, the ability to take and transmit pictures, the ability to go online and access databases … the mind boggles.

Most people believe that when they send a text message or an email it is safe from prying eyes. But the reality is that at every stage of the transmission – one that takes seconds – that communication can be intercepted, often regardless of encryption. That’s why RIM’s system bedevilled pluralistic governments that wanted to know everything their citizen’s and enemies or both were up to. It was watertight.

In the post 9-11 and current recessionary world, a world where social networking has led to a culture of most people in the Western world revealing everything about themselves and smartphones are even more powerful than ever – and getting smarter – the idea of a secure, private system is no doubt RIM’s secret sauce.

That is why many corporations chose BlackBerrys, they were secure.

As RIM co-CEO Mike Lazardis rightly pointed out this situation has implications not only for wireless email, but also for online transactions like e-commerce and electronic money transfer.

I actually think it goes further than that. Responding to a question on RTÉ’s ‘Drivetime’ last week on whether the same scenario could arise here as did in Saudi and UAE, I pointed out that on the face of it in Ireland it won’t be an issue.

But then again it would be an issue if a member of An Garda Síochána not below the rank of chief superintendent or a sufficiently ranking officer in the Defence Forces or the Revenue Commissioners decided to invoke powers in the controversial Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009.

Why? The Bill, based on the EU Data Retention Directive, gives these officers the powers to instruct an ISP or mobile operator to provide data based on three years of stored records if a warrant was issued. If BlackBerry’s servers are that watertight then surely there is nothing these officers can do to get their hands on this information if, for example, they are investigating corporate wrongdoing – highly plausible in the case of the banking shenanigans of the past few years – or trying to bust a drugs cartel or terrorism ring.

For Research in Motion, the entire affair is disturbing. On the one hand they offer a secure way to communicate safe from prying eyes. On the other, if they were to bend or give in to demands that these governments are making it could be a credibility issue.

Already it is understood the Saudi Government has granted RIM a temporary reprieve while both entities test a new server solution. One thing’s for sure, RIM will need to be very clear about what this actually entails and just how safe is our data today?

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years