RIM's BlackBerry jam

10 Aug 2010

If you’ve been scratching your head about the apparently sudden desire of governments to make BlackBerrys open to official eavesdropping, some recent FT reporting might throw some light on what’s triggered the standoff.

In a story that has spread well beyond the tech blogosphere, the Saudi, Gulf, Indian and Lebanese authorities have threatened to ban the well-encrypted device unless RIM makes it accessible to local agencies.

RIM’s defense has been threefold: these people don’t understand how BlackBerry works; that it doesn’t have a master encryption key; and that it would never compromise on its promise to keep customer’s data secure.

It probably has a point with the first and is irrelevantly correct on the second - but it appears outright misleading on the third.

OK, this is a topic that dwells beyond the regular boundaries of corporate transparency, so a little conjecture is called for here.

But whereas RIM stoutly denied that it had offered a deal with Indian security agencies to allow them to listen in on email or IM conversations via locally-installed proxy servers, it has reportedly struck exactly that deal with Saudi authorities.

Indeed, as the FTnotes “Many US officials have long assumed that countries such as China and Russia can overcome the encryption problems the UAE encountered and intercept email messages without RIM’s connivance.”

We are reminded that, for reasons RIM has not disclosed, Chinese mobile operators were forced to hold off on launching the BlackBerry for almost a year.

It is possible, though difficult to believe, that BlackBerrys roam US and British networks beyond the scrutiny of US and UK security agencies.

Indeed, if the US is able to monitor BlackBerry traffic, then it certainly puts a different light on Hillary Clinton’s efforts to turn this into a net freedom issue.

It is possible she has little idea of what the NSA actually does.

It’s equally plausible the US National Security Agency – far and away the world’s most powerful electronic eavesdropping agency - doesn’t need RIM’s help to peer inside the BlackBerry.

Misha Glenny, a specialist on organized crime, makes the point that the USA’s global spy network and partner countries – the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – ensure that it has a vastly deeper reach into the internet than any other country.

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