BlackBerry may be waning as a company — but it never lost its title as one of the more secure mobile operating systems. That’s about to change.
A joint investigation by Motherboard and Vice found out that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the country’s federal police agency, has been in possession of BlackBerry’s global encryption key since 2010.
“We don’t want the general public to know.”
The information, which government lawyers have been fighting to keep out of public record, comes from court documents made public about a Montreal crime syndicate that pleaded guilty to a 2011 gangland murder.
It shows how BlackBerry, then known as Research in Motion (RIM), decrypted about “one million PIN-to-PIN” messages for the investigation, but it’s unknown who exactly provided the key. Canadian carrier Rogers also assisted with the investigation.
BlackBerry told Digital Trends it is “not able to provide comment at this time.” and similarly the report says the RCMP and BlackBerry did not confirm whether the global encryption key was provided by the smartphone manufacturer.
The RCMP used assistance orders to BlackBerry, requesting the company’s aid in unlocking the phone. It’s similar to the court order Apple received from the FBI, demanding access into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone.
It was unclear who provided the key, and when the defense asked the information to be disclosed, the prosecutors refused to answer why. They simply said that BlackBerry’s cooperation should remain private — that it would have a negative commercial impact on the company, and could compromise the police’s relationship with BlackBerry.
It could also have had global ramifications, as Alan Treddenick, director of National Security and Law Enforcement Liaison at BlackBerry, said in an affidavit.
“[It would] potentially impact relationships with other end-users and law enforcement criminal investigations globally for all foreign countries that BlackBerry operates and provides communication services,” according to the report.
The prosecuting attorney said even his phone would be vulnerable, when the judge asked whether the disclosure of global key would jeopardize ongoing investigations.
“I’m a dead chicken. That’s the reality of it, that’s what we don’t want the general public to know,” Crown attorney Robert Rouleau said.
The judge eventually decided to have the prosecutors disclose how they used and obtained the key to the defense, but they didn’t have to provide the key itself. Then, the prosecutors appealed, and the hearing moved to March 30 of 2016.
But on that date, the seven men tied to the investigation pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, and one “confessed to being an accessory after the fact.”
That meant the appeal would be discontinued, and the information on how BlackBerry assisted the RCMP, and who provided the global encryption key, would never see the light of day.
The revelations have the potential to be devastating for BlackBerry, as it struggles to remain relevant in the changing world of smartphones. Nevertheless, it also sparks the need for a conversation on encryption — as U.S. Senators just unveiled a draft of a bill that would penalize companies for refusing to provide access into their phones and services.
We’ll keep you updated as more information comes our way.