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BlackBerry and Apple Don't See Eye-to-Eye on Encryption

  • Gerrit De Vynck
  • April 18 2016, 6:30am EDT
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(Bloomberg) -- BlackBerry Ltd. prides itself both on its reputation for security and close relationships with many of the world’s most powerful governments. In an era where consumers are increasingly aware of surveillance from law enforcement and spy agencies, those two points of pride may start coming into conflict.

A by Vice News on Thursday, citing court documents, details how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police obtained a key to unlock messages sent between BlackBerry phones as early as 2010. The situation stands in stark contrast to the clash that erupted between Apple Inc. and the U.S. government earlier this year when the U.S. tech firm refused to redesign its software to let the FBI bypass encryption on an iPhone used by a shooter in the San Bernardino attacks.

BlackBerry Chief Executive Officer John Chen stepped into the encryption debate in December. “We are indeed in a dark place when companies put their reputations above the greater good,” Chen said in a blog post.

Public Debate

A spokeswoman for BlackBerry declined to comment on the Vice story. Harold Pfleiderer, a spokesman for the RCMP, declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying the force’s investigations are governed by Canadian law and court orders. Canada’s Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale, which oversees the RCMP, declined to comment on the specifics of the case but said he welcomed a public debate on encryption. 

“Canadians need to reflect on this new and emerging area of law, privacy and crime prevention,” Goodale said in an e-mailed statement.

The cases reveal the different lines Apple and BlackBerry have drawn about whose data they are willing to help governments access. BlackBerry has staunchly rejected governments who have asked for access to the special servers used by its corporate and government clients, going so far as pulling out of Pakistan.

Like Apple does with its newest consumer phones, BlackBerry insists it doesn’t have the keys to decrypt data passed through those servers. But the Vice story alleges BlackBerry was willing to give police access to the encryption keys for consumer phones.

Larger Discussion

Government departments around the world still use BlackBerry phones, even as regular consumers have abandoned them for the app-rich environments provided by devices running Apple and Google software. The customer base may offer clues as to why BlackBerry seems willing to co-operate with governments, said Christopher Parsons,
a security researcher at the University of Toronto.

“It’s important for them to provide the best product they think they can provide without alienating the very parties who are going to be purchasing those products,” Parsons said. Consumer-oriented Silicon Valley companies like Apple have generally been more resistant to government requests, he said.

BlackBerry has always said it complies with lawful requests by government for access to communications, and the fact that the RCMP had keys to decrypt its communications may not come as a surprise to industry experts, Parsons said. Still, the situation may prompt a larger discussion, he said.

“More customers being aware of the ways in which BlackBerry has traditionally secured consumer communications is important,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to have an encryption debate in Canada.”

BlackBerry fell 1.7 percent to $7.08 in New York Thursday. The stock is down 24 percent so far this year and about 95 percent from its 2008 peak.

--With assistance from Josh Wingrove

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