​BlackBerry skirts RCMP decryption claims in privacy defence

BlackBerry has defended its stance on protecting customer privacy, but failed to address how the Canadian police reportedly got hold of its master encryption key.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

BlackBerry has released a statement defending its core corporate and ethical principles, saying it has been focused on protecting customer privacy.

In a blog post, BlackBerry executive chairman and CEO John Chen highlighted that BlackBerry's guiding principle has been about doing what is right for its customers, within legal and ethical boundaries.

"We have long been clear in our stance that tech companies as good corporate citizens should comply with reasonable lawful access requests. I have stated before that we are indeed in a dark place when companies put their reputations above the greater good," he said.

The statement released by Chen comes days after reports claiming the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) obtained BlackBerry's master encryption key, which enabled the Canadian police to intercept and decrypt around 1 million messages used by BlackBerry's proprietary messaging technology.

The court documents relating to a Montreal crime syndicate case revealed BlackBerry and cellular network Rogers cooperated with law enforcement.

While it's unclear how RCMP gained access to BlackBerry's encryption key, it is believed BlackBerry "facilitated the interception process".

BlackBerry is long known to have used a master encryption key, used on every device to scramble messages. This gives the company access to all communications over its systems, and would permit it to hand over data to law enforcement when asked. But since the Edward Snowden revelations it was widely assumed that at least one of the Five Eyes governments colluding in mass surveillance -- of which Canada is a member -- had acquired the keys.

"Regarding BlackBerry's assistance, I can reaffirm that we stood by our lawful access principles," Chen reaffirmed.

He also highlighted the company recently refused to give Pakistan access to its servers.

The Canadian phone maker was originally slated to exit the Pakistani market at the end of last year, after the company's chief operating officer Marty Beard said the company would rather leave the country than hand over unfettered private information of its enterprise customers.

However, following talks with the Pakistani government, BlackBerry backed down from its decision at the start of the year.

"We are grateful to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and the Pakistani government for accepting BlackBerry's position that we cannot provide the content of our customers' BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) traffic, nor will we provide access to our BES servers," Beard said.

"We look forward to serving the Pakistani market for years to come, including introducing new products and services, and thank our valued customers in Pakistan for their patience and loyalty."

Chen also confirmed BlackBerry's Enterprise Server was not involved in the case, saying it continues to be "impenetrable -- also without the ability for backdoor access -- and is the secure mobile platform for managing all mobile devices".

But BlackBerry is not the only multinational that has been forced into deciding between standing up for the privacy of customers and helping law enforcement agencies in recent times.

Apple was recently caught up in a legal case with the FBI, which was demanding the hardware manufacturer help federal agents unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

During the legal battle, Apple senior vice president of Internet Software and Service, Eddy Cue, said he would not know where United States law enforcements would stop, if it's able to force the hardware maker to create a version of iOS to bypass functionality that auto-erases a device once a number of failed passcode attempts is reached.

"One day they may want us to open your phone's camera, microphone. Those are things we can't do now. But if they can force us to do that, I think that's very bad," Cue said. "Because where does this stop? In a divorce case? In an immigration case? In a tax case with the IRS?"

However, the government dropped the case against Apple after an "outside party" was able to help the FBI unlock the iPhone. But neither the FBI or the US Attorneys Office in Los Angeles would say how the iPhone was unlocked, or if Apple was told how it was done.

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