Squishing privacy: do Canadian police have a backdoor into BlackBerry?

15 Apr 2016

Court documents point to evidence that Canadian police have had a backdoor into BlackBerry encryption since 2010

Canada’s federal police agency is understood to have had a global encryption key for BlackBerry devices since 2010, when the company formerly known as RIM was at the zenith of its success.

Never mind the furore over Apple’s iPhone encryption, this means Canadian police may have been able to intercept BlackBerry Messenger conversations for the past six years.

According to Vice, court documents in an investigation into Montreal’s criminal underworld centring on a 2011 gangland murder allege that BlackBerry and telecoms player Rogers cooperated with investigators.

Technical reports by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) filed in court indicate that police investigators were able to intercept and decrypt 1m PIN-to-PIN BlackBerry messages in the course of their investigations between 2010 and 2012.

Was BlackBerry’s backdoor ajar?

The ramifications could be enormous in Canada, where the thought that a single piece of code could unlock a backdoor into the private communications of government and business officials will raise concerns.

Worse still, it indicates that the police forces of Canada had this capability for at least six years and no one outside of the police knew anything about it.

BlackBerry, formerly known as RIM, pretty much kicked off the smartphone era from 2000 until 2007, when its star began to fall when Apple launched the iPhone.

At first, it made devices that began as email pagers, which swiftly morphed into fully-fledged smartphones.

For most of the 2000s, the company enjoyed unparalleled success. However, just like Nokia, it failed to acknowledge the threat posed by the iPhone and reacted too late with unpopular devices like the Storm and eventually the Q10. Now it is making Android devices.

While it may appear that the storm over encryption of the BlackBerry is centred on Canada, the value of BlackBerry to business and government users around the world was its end-to-end, closed encryption. The device has been used by world leaders, presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors and many other dignitaries, as well as ordinary business users.

While neither the RCMP or BlackBerry have commented on the allegations, it raises questions for a whole world of past and present BlackBerry Messenger users.

RCMP image via Shutterstock

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