German Chancellor's BlackBerry Likely Withstood NSA Tapping: Vendor

NEWS ANALYSIS: The vendor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's encrypted BlackBerry Z10 smartphone is claiming that the device was likely too secure for even the NSA to crack.

When the news broke that the U.S. National Security Agency was tracking the mobile communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders, video and photos started circulating of the chancellor displaying her official BlackBerry Z10 embossed with Germany's eagle emblem.

But despite all of the hype about the NSA's alleged tapping of the cell phones of world leaders, it's highly unlikely that even the NSA would be able to crack the encryption built into Merkel's government-issued smartphone, according to the phone's vendor, Secusmart, a German company that turns the BlackBerry Z10 into a secure communications device.

The German government bought as many as 40,000 of these secure BlackBerry Z10 cell phones in the spring of 2013, including one for Merkel.

eWEEK reported on the new device in March of 2013 following a meeting with Secusmart executives at the CeBIT trade show in Hannover, Germany. The device includes an encryption engine installed via a micro SD card. Once installed, the BlackBerry meets NATO requirements for classified communications. The Secusmart device allows the BlackBerry to act as a typical smartphone, while encrypting all communications with other secure systems.

"The high security solution from Secusmart for secure communication within the government was not affected," said Secusmart CEO Hans-Christoph Quelle in a prepared statement e-mailed to eWEEK. In that statement the company explained that even if the encrypted communications between Merkel and other German officials were intercepted, it's highly unlikely that the contents could have been cracked. Secusmart uses the 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard on all voice and data communications.

In its statement, the company described how its encryption process works. "The Secusmart company’s encryption technique was developed together with security experts at the BSI (The German Federal Office for Information Security) and their security is openly documented. It’s based on the Secusmart Security Card, a micro SD card with an integrated SmartCard chip. This miniature crypto-processor takes care of the encryption of voice and data communication within the mobile phone including authenticating calling parties. Its 128-bit AES encryption enables 340 sextillion different keys—imagine 36 zeros after the number 340."

"Theoretically, it would take 149 billion years to crack this code based on today’s technical standards, even with the use of special computers," Dr. Quelle explained. "The universe itself isn’t even that old. That’ll definitely keep the USA busy for awhile."

German government spokesperson declined to comment on the security features of the chancellor's BlackBerry. "We do not give details of communication devices the chancellor uses," the spokesperson said.

But this doesn't mean all of the chancellor's mobile communications were reliably secure. Apparently Ms. Merkel has more than one cell phone and while her official communications with other German government leaders were in fact protected, calls and emails from her personal phone were not. This means that it's entirely possible that her personal calls and other communications were intercepted and opened.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...