A Black Couple of Months for Blackberry

6 September 2011

Blackberry has had a rough couple of months. This was highlighted by calls from David Cameron during the London riots for Blackberry Messenger (and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook) to be temporarily blocked.

Blackberry had previously enjoyed a Fort Knox-style reputation and was highly regarded as being the most secure mobile device for security…which inadvertently has led to the dark clouds hanging over Blackberry. The brand’s previous reputation for prestige and respected security has helped it to become the mobile device of choice for politicians, businesses, bankers and other high profile figures. For example, President Obama uses a Blackberry, while Tony Blair told the Daily Mail about the question his son Leo asked him about his Blackberry: “Dad, who do you love more, me or the phone?'”

However, the London riots revealed a somewhat surprising fact that it’s not just high flyers and powerful types who are owners of Blackberries, but also young teenagers are also fans of the phones. This is due to Blackberry Messenger (BBM), which allows people to communicate at no cost with fellow users – rather than having to pay for a SMS text message. This has led to the phone becoming less of a business phone, but a smartphone that is also ideal for all levels of society, from President of the United States to rioting school kids in London.

But what has caused the Blackberry backlash is that RIM (Research In Motion – the company the develops the smartphone) adds a level of encryption to their service. This means that the message actually coming from a BlackBerry is already scrambled before it gets to the secure service connection. The message is then unscrambled when it reaches its destination on the other side of the connection. This basically means that some rioters were able to communicate with each other (if they had a Blackberry) without detection.

As well as being free, it is also instant and can reach a much larger Blackberry community as you can chat in groups. This led to concern that youngsters have easy access to devices which almost makes them “above the law”. Twitter messages (Tweets) could be seen by anyone online. Therefore comments on Facebook and Twitter have made it a lot easier for police to make arrests. In contrast, the media has relied on looters physically showing the messages that they received – rather than them being available to see. Even though RIM hosts a network of servers around the world that stores the information of BBM conversations, Blackberry do not have access to the information about individual accounts.

Computer forensics analysts are able to extract data from RIM devices, so criminals are thankfully not completely hidden if they use a Blackberry. But some devices are encrypted with a passlock that cannot be circumvented – therefore if the thief were to have a passlock and then use this device for BBM it may not be able to gain access and see what the content is. It does remain an offence however to not provide a password or encryption key to law enforcement if requested.

So, the recent riots showed that some regulation of Blackberry’s BBM needs to be implemented or Blackberry will become the thieves’ device of choice.

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