Canada’s federal police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, has been decrypting BlackBerry Messenger messages since 2010, according to papers uncovered in a joint investigation conducted by Vice News and Motherboard following a two-year fight by government lawyers to keep that information from being released.
BlackBerry has long pointed to its supposedly unbreakable encryption for BBM. Now it appears that the company only had one encryption key for most of its individual users, and that the company kept the key. The RCMP was able to begin decrypting messages after the company shared the key with the police agency.
This may not be the only time that BlackBerry has shared its encryption key with governments. During the same period of time, the company reached agreements with governments in India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia after being threatened with expulsion from the countries involved when the national police couldn’t find a way to break BlackBerry’s encryption. In each case, the threats went away after meetings between those national governments and BlackBerry executives.
“If all of this is true, it’s clearly a black eye,” said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates. “BlackBerry has been known forever for its security.”
Gold noted that enterprises using BlackBerry Enterprise Services may not have been affected, since those organizations have the ability to create their own encryption keys.
“But if you’re a BBM user because you thought it was secure, then it’s not,” Gold said. “This obviously is not good.”
It’s unclear how broadly BlackBerry encryption is compromised. BlackBerry stopped providing its private network, BlackBerry Internet Services, to most users around the same time as it apparently helped the RCMP get into the encryption. At one point, older devices used BlackBerry’s network as the pathway for email as well as for BBM messages. Whether that service used the same encryption key as BBM isn’t known.
RCMP’s access to a BBM encryption key presents a clear parallel to demands by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI that tech companies, including Apple, help them break the encryption of mobile devices and email messages. The apparent difference is BlackBerry’s willingness to work with law enforcement. BlackBerry is based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
U.S. tech firms have been publicly less cooperative with requests from the FBI to help bypass encryption on mobile devices. Apple began encrypting the contents of its iPhone devices following a series of scandals in which the personal information and photos of celebrities were leaked and released on the Internet.
Media Probe Reveals BlackBerry Shared BBM Encryption Key With RCMP
Apple not only started encrypting all information on its devices by default, but it also added security capabilities such as two-factor authentication.
The original event that precipitated the BlackBerry key sharing was an organized crime murder case that stretched into Italy. The criminals used BBM for their internal communications, believing it to be secure. Because the Canadian authorities had gained access to the BlackBerry encryption key, the contents of the messages were available to be used in the trial.
The Canadian government fought the release of the court filings by the prosecutors that revealed the use of the encryption key because it didn’t want that fact to become known. However, the government’s attempts to keep such a secret didn’t pass muster with the courts.
As was the case with the attempts by the FBI to force Apple’s cooperation, the Canadian authorities used a criminal trial as justification.
But since the time of that Canadian criminal case, BlackBerry has not changed its encryption key. This would have to be accomplished through a simultaneous update of all devices globally. As a result, the RCMP can continue to read BBM messages regardless of where in the world the BBM user is located.
Despite its success at penetrating an iPhone 5C used by San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist Syed Farook, the Justice Department is attempting to force Apple to assist it in decrypting the contents of hundreds of iPhones alleged to have been used in a number of serious crimes such as drug trafficking. So far, Apple has refused, explaining that it doesn’t even hold the encryption keys.
For BlackBerry, the future is unclear. Gold noted that BlackBerry sales have plummeted in recent years even among users who in the past had trusted the company’s encryption. “Will this cause consumers to dump the devices?” Gold asked. “They already have.”
For business users, the company’s encryption may still be intact, although it pays to confirm this. For small companies that may not be using BES, then the encryption has been compromised. For larger companies using BES, it’s critical to ensure that a unique encryption key is being used and if it’s not, then it’s time to change that. If your company has been using BES for a while, it’s probably a good idea to change your key. Who knows what else might have been compromised?
BlackBerry devices have long been a favorite device for people in countries with repressive governments, who used BBM to communicate in ways that couldn’t be read by their governments. Now it appears that the trust in BlackBerry encryption may have been misplaced.