If Blackberry Maker Eavesdrops On Itself, Who Else Gets To?

It’s good to find that R.I.M. does not actually record employee phone calls, according to a company representative contacted this afternoon by Between The Lines.
Written by Tom Steinert-Threlkeld, Contributor

It’s good to find that R.I.M. does not actually record employee phone calls, according to a company representative contacted this afternoon by Between The Lines.

Because what is so piquant about the original comment carried by Research In Motion chief information officer Robin Bienfait that she records “everything” that employees chat about on the Blackberry maker’s internal communications network is that she appeared to be not just endorsing eavesdropping. She would be leading the way.

Bienfait's comments, which originally appeared on ZDNet Australia, were intended to describe a capability that exists with RIM's BlackBerry Mobile Voice System technology, according to the spokeswoman, responding to the Between The Lines query.

This technology allows companies to record voice and data exchanges, aka conversations. This can be useful for RIM's customers in regulated industries that require such ability. But Ms. Bienfait did not intend to suggest that RIM itself records employee phone calls.

RIM conducted an internal test of the MVS technology with “a subset of employees.”

Here’s what the company says was construed or misconstrued:

Ms. Bienfait intended to convey that RIM was recording data that is transmitted over voice channels (ie. SMS messages) as well as data channels (ie. email messages and IM chat sessions). But RIM is not recording the phone calls of the employees involved in the beta test, or any other employees.

Which is to say: universal recording of internal voice calls (or emails) could actually wind up undermining the protection of R.I.M. communications. Yes, watching internal communications protects R.I.M.’s intellectual property, as the ZDNet Australia report noted. That property is, of course, what gives R.I.M. a competitive advantage, built its business and keeps it in business. Hurray for that.

But, eavesdropping on all employee calls – “everything” – acknowledges that there are real, recognizable and – you have to say – legitimate reasons to eavesdrop on big mounds and little threads of communications.

Which, in the long haul, would make it much tougher, it says here, on R.I.M.’s business. And could drive users to find alternate means of communications, to make sure their communications stay – as R.I.M.’s serious and sophisticated security pretty much ensures, from a technical standpoint – private.


Anybody notice that Blackberries are increasingly becoming the communications devices of choice for crack dealers, criminals and, yes, terrorists, around the globe? Why? Because of that security. The cops can’t listen in. And, despite what the chat group said on Bruce Schneier’s site a couple years ago, there is confidence that neither the NSA nor the CIA is listening in.

So serious a threat to national security is the digital security on a Blackberry that nation after nation is lining up now to demand and legislate into existence access to Blackberry communications.

First up was Sweden, which last June adopted eavesdropping legislation that gives its defense agency the right to intercept, ‘scan’ and (why else?) open communications, at will. This was done to counter terrorism.

Next up has been India, which has been telling R.I.M. that it wants to eavesdrop on any and all transmissions made to and from Blackberry phones among its wireless-loving and rather large population. Yeah, maybe this amounts to only a million Blackberries. But it’s a billion-population market. This would create a big precedent, if it gets legislated into a business requirement, to allow access. What corporation, let alone miscreant, wants to have its internal communications subject to indiscriminate review by an assembly of politicians it does not have any control or influence over?

India’s intent has been of such concern to R.I.M. that it has enlisted the aid of Canada’s Minister of Industry, Tony Clement to stem the tide. He was the fourth Canadian official in one month to try and fight New Delhi on behalf of the Maple Leaf’s poster child for technical innovation.

But if R.I.M. were to eavesdrop on all its own internal communications you could easily see support for Blackberry impregnability wane.

Just look up North. It is in Canada itself that police chiefs that are asking legislators to come up with the “political will” to demand that communications companies create backdoors that will allow law enforcers to poke around at Blackberry and other digital communications on their servers.

If the threat to the maintenance of the health of a communications company from communications carried out over its own communications technology that emanates from its own employees is so great as to make eavesdropping an imperative, not an elective, matter, then how would it fairly and logically tell police chiefs in its own country and governments abroad that it’s not critical, imperative and non-elective that they be given access to email and voice messages that could result in death and destruction, at home and abroad?

If R.I.M. said privacy on a business network gives way to the need of that business to survive, it would in effect be endorsing eavesdropping.

Police chiefs and chiefs of state would then come knocking on its door and agree. Only they would say that the ultimate primacy that concerns them is the right of their citizens, their businesses and their agencies of all types and sizes to survive.

Which could lead to R.I.M. opening up its doors to outsiders, even if current law backs companies eavesdropping on insiders.

Laws making that distinction can change. The "crackberry" could become the "cracked berry," in that event.

And R.I.M. would have supplied the ammunition.

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