Much has been written about BlackBerry’s fall from grace as far as business goes. It once had a considerably strong grip on the cell phone market.
While Nokia may have dominated the consumer market for phones, Canada’s BlackBerry had the business and enterprise sewn up but eventually the company would fall behind in the smartphone wars when the iPhone and Android took over the market.
But for much of its heyday, BlackBerry was celebrated for its security features. It was the preferred cell phone maker for governments and police forces thanks to its approved encryption technology. However that stature has slowly been eroded away much like its market share.
BlackBerry’s biggest hit has come at its own doorstep in Canada. An investigation from CBC News in June found there was unit within the company that was responsible for intercepting users’ messages for police investigations.
The Public Safety Operations team was responsible for handling warrants and police requests, the details of which were always kept confidential. CBC News claimed that BlackBerry was “actively assisting police in a wide range of high profile investigations.”
These high profile investigations allegedly include intercepting messages relating to Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and authenticating BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) messages in an MLB drug scandal.
On top of that, the unnamed insiders that spoke with CBC took great pride in helping authorities: “Narco trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, crime against children, knowing you are stopping those things [...] how do you not love doing something like that?”
Just a few months on from the privacy tussle between Apple and the FBI over the San Bernardino case, the enthusiasm to get involved and help in police work comes in stark contrast.
BlackBerry declined to respond in great detail to the hefty allegations, stating the company only complies with “reasonable lawful access requests”.
It was revealed that the company uses a system called International Cover Letters (ICL) for police and authorities from anywhere in the world to make data requests to the company. The request form features a peculiar “Other” section next to requests for things like message logs and account information. According to sources in law enforcement, the CBC investigation claimed that this “Other” request is where communication interceptions and decryption happens.
It was the latest in a tale of encryption where BlackBerry didn’t come out looking too well. In April it was reported that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have been able to access and decrypt certain kinds of BlackBerry messages in crime cases.
“In this case they caught a bunch of mobsters, but there’s a lot of people that may engage in risky or politically sensitive communications because they believe that their BlackBerry communications are secure,” said Christopher Parsons, a fellow at the Toronto-based Citizen Lab, which studies security and data privacy.
The revelations and allegations undermine the security and privacy that BlackBerry had built into it its reputation.
For many years, BlackBerry was synonymous with security. Last year it even threatened to cease all operations in Pakistan in response to governmental requests for access to its servers. However it still remains unclear where BlackBerry draws the line in the sand for helping law enforcement.
“We reject the notion that tech companies should refuse reasonable, lawful access requests,” said CEO John Chen last year. “Just as individual citizens bear responsibility to help thwart crime when they can safely do so, so do corporations have a responsibility to do what they can, within legal and ethical boundaries, to help law enforcement in its mission to protect us.”
Chen admitted that tech companies still need to resist authorities that try to overstep their boundaries but at what point does BlackBerry begin to resist?
In a post-Snowden world, the security of hardware and software is under more scrutiny than ever and BlackBerry’s security posture has seemingly dwindled along with its struggling business. All the while companies and services such as Apple and WhatsApp have bolstered their products with things like end to end encryption that shuts everyone except the user out.
For a long time BlackBerry was synonymous with government staffers. At one point, the company’s encryption technology was the only one approved for use by several governments around the world. Barack Obama continued to use a BlackBerry throughout most of his presidency (until recently moving to a new, still undisclosed make of phone). Meanwhile police forces from the States to India were using the phones.
But just this week, this US Senate decided to ditch BlackBerrys in favor of Samsung and Apple devices.
At the same time, more companies have tried to edge in on BlackBerry’s long-held market among government employees.
Samsung launched its Knox brand for enterprise use, which was approved by the NSA in 2014. Silent Circle’s Blackphone is another product with security built-in from the beginning. It’s a company that has BlackBerry’s former reputation squarely in its sights.
BlackBerry has tried regularly to win back customers and particularly the privacy conscious ones. The company now makes Android phones to appeal to a more current audience but the phones have largely fallen short of their goal and BlackBerry continues its struggle to regain its former glory.