British spy agency called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

British spy agency called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

Summary: British intelligence services are attempting to crack the BlackBerry encryption, in order to prevent the spread of further riots.

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It wouldn't be the first time that British spooks have cracked a seemingly impossible code.

British intelligence service, MI5 has been drafted in to assist its sister service, GCHQ in cracking the BlackBerry encryption code, in order to find those responsible for disseminating messages which perpetuated riots in London earlier this month.

(Image via Flickr)

While the encryption between Messenger devices is yet to be cracked, police resorted to old fashioned methods to access the BlackBerry Messenger service -- by confiscating phones of those caught rioting.

Amid further disruption across London, the Guardian report that Scotland Yard officers were able to physically access BlackBerry messages, hours before the attacks were meant to take place.

Police would, in case of further riots, find it greatly beneficial to access real-time communications of BlackBerry users, to track where protests and riots may take place. On the other hand, the legalities involved are tetchy.

BlackBerry Messenger is heavily encrypted -- and it is not clear whether Research in Motion, the manufacturer of the young-focused smartphones, is able to hand over the encryption keys. Further to this, it is not clear whether the BlackBerry maker even stores Messenger data on its servers, making further arrests by police difficult.

Earlier this year, GCHQ's government testing service announced that BlackBerrys are secure enough for government use -- leading to questions as to whether BlackBerrys are in fact crackable.

BlackBerrys pose a serious problem for governments and law enforcement when found to be used for illegal or criminal activity.

BlackBerry enterprise email is just as secure as BlackBerry Messenger for the consumer-focused group. Having said that, it is not clear whether Research in Motion has the encryption keys for BlackBerry Messenger -- knowing full well that it doesn't for individual server setups.

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Topics: BlackBerry, Hardware, Mobile OS, Mobility

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18 comments
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  • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

    I can just hear it now:

    "BBM" - "Bond Broke Messenger"
    reklissrick
  • Wow....

    Wow... the power of a BlackBerry.
    visualambrosia
  • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

    Minister, we have some good news, some bad and some worse. The good news is that we've managed to "crack" the Blackberry encryption. The bad news is that it doesn't really get us much that we couldn't get in other ways. The worse news is that because of the successful crack, we're de-certifying Blackberry for Government use; you'll have to turn yours in, sir.

    Disclaimer: fictional scene. I think there's a pretty good chance they won't in fact be able to break it.
    dqkennard
    • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

      @dqkennard I agree. I don't think they can break it, either. Worth a shot though, right?
      zwhittaker
      • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

        @zwhittaker Well, it depends. If they get support from their allies across The Pond, they should be able to break it. MI5 might not have planned ahead, but I would be surprised if the CIA and NSA haven't already built high-speed key generating crackers for exactly this kind of problem.
        mejohnsn
    • BlackBerry Squish

      But it seems the ability to crush the content out of the PM's email in Brooks' BlackBerry may have come in handy! Too bad that's also evidence of evidence tampering, GCHQ!
      abbadabbadoo
    • BlackBerry Squish

      "Good news, Prime Minister, we found good use for crushing content out of BlackBerry's stored emails!"

      Rebekah Brooks told a court her BlackBerry failed to image the PM's email properly. She said the holow little shell was "compressed." How did she pick up the spook's lingo?

      Fortunately for the PM, we will never know what that email said, but it is still evidence that that evidence was tampered with. By and for WHOM?
      abbadabbadoo
  • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

    MI5 is being bought in for a reason, and it is not the Mathematical capabilities or there technological resources, after all its GCHQ job to provide those to MI5.

    I suspect they are not even going to brother with try to crack the code instead they will steal the encryption keys from RIM or who ever have them and probably implant a high level individual with in the company able to keep on feeding this information to the security services, plus details of the operating systems, and so fourth.

    I could see GCHQ and MI5 implanting software onto the Blackberry OS to enable backdoor for which GCHQ can use to hack the phones directly.

    For example imagine if GCHQ could send out a programme to everyone in a riot area, and then programme beams back unencrypted messages to the security services. As well as the locations of those phones long after the rioting has stopped.

    One thing for sure if GCHQ will eventually fine some way to penetrate the system, whether that cracking the code or getting to the messages before they are encrypted in the first place.

    I guest we will know whether it is true that GCHQ is at least 5 to 10 years ahead of publicly available encryption and decryption technologies or perhaps not, may be they already know they can crack the black berry security and this is just misdirection of there part to hide there capabilities from foreign powers. After all I am sure if they could already read the messages, putting out the myth that they are uncrackable might lead to more criminals and intelligence agencies using the devices in the first place and thus more easily obtainable information for GCHQ and MI5/6 to use.
    Knowles2
    • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

      @Knowles2 Risk a major international relations incident by parachuting spies into Canada to invade RIM just to deal with soccer hooligans gone wild? Highly unlikely.
      jgm@...
      • BlackBerry Squish

        How prescient of you! No, they just blew their own cover with their own crappy security.

        When building a spooky program, the first thing to consider is whether it can stand up to exposure. What are the costs of revelation? GCHQ accounted for their own anxiety in memos stored by NSA. They were concerned revelation may subject them and their corporate collaborators to severe penalties. Roger, that, NSA! Evidence of your criminal conspiracy, THANKS!
        abbadabbadoo
    • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

      @Knowles2

      In other words, a side-channel attack. Exactly what I was thinking...
      kfan
  • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

    You can't have it both ways. You want something that is secure enough for government, but you want to be able to crack it at the same time. I would imagine that if they can crack it that RIM can just bump up the security a notch or so and MI5 will be back to square one.

    Maybe their best option is to heavily promote the iPhone and Android devices and hasten RIMs exit from the mobile business.
    boomchuck1
    • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

      @boomchuck1 H-m-m-m. That would mean goodbye, secure mobile. Neither iPhone nor Android have the security-built-in architecture of Blackberry.
      mejohnsn
  • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

    "...BlackBerrys pose a serious problem for governments and law enforcement when found to be used for illegal or criminal activity..." --BlackBerry also provide a serious problem for governments who would impose despotism on the rest of us, but as usual, too many seem willing to stand for what's being positioned as merely a "law enforcement" or "security" issue, without demanding safeguards to protect our freedom and liberty from abuse by MI5, GCHQ, NSA, CIA, FBI and the government. Wake up!
    Wake up, people!
    DJJazzyJeff
    • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

      @DJJazzyJeff Bingo.
      JRonin
    • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

      @DJJazzyJeff ...Finally some sense!!!
      striker67
  • RE: British spooks called in to crack BlackBerry encryption

    There is only one unbreakable cipher. It's a random additive key. Plain + Key = Cipher_Text. If you *NEVER* reuse that key the cipher is unbreakable. Generating
    and distributing the key is a significant problem. If you really must keep your text secret, that's how you do it. The Washington-Moscow Hotline uses such an encryption scheme. Most organizations, governmental or non-governmental, simply
    don't have the resources to achieve this level of security. Most organizations really
    don't need such a level of security and most can't afford it. See a book "The Code Breakers" by David Kahn for a fascinating tutorial on cryptology.

    I suspect that any encryption scheme that's affordable by ordinary mortals is breakable.
    draco vulgaris
  • BlackBerry Squish

    Rebekah Brooks told the Leveson Inquiry that the David Cameron's email imaged from her work BlackBerry without any content. She described his contentless email as "compressed" and could not tell the court how that happened.

    Here is her testimony before Leveson, public record, and the first five pages make clear what's gone on.

    http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Transcript-of-Morning-Hearing-11-May-2012.pdf

    The BlackBerry was found in a car park, where her staff left it, by a groundskeeper who gave it to police. So, it seems the time available to tamper with that device was more likely while it was in police custody for more than three weeks.

    Did not GCHQ report to NSA they'd cracked the BB's compression technology by Nov. of 2011? Either someone ELSE beat them to the punchbowl, or they have a spook loose. Cameron's email's imaging problem occurred after it was handed back by police, in AUGUST of 2011. He knows he has this imaging problem, so a spooky gag order has been added to the typical prohibition against discussing evidence in a criminal trial, even if it's been tampered with!!
    abbadabbadoo