In February, lawyers for Apple went before a federal court in the United States to argue that if one of its own phones, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation had asked the company to do, it would create a back door that could be easily exploited.
“Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable,” Tim Cook, the company’s CEO, wrote in a statement posted on Apple’s website.
But closer to home, and much more quietly, BlackBerry was taking the opposite approach. When the RCMP asked the company for help, it gave them a master key that could decrypt any message sent on the commercial version of BlackBerry messenger.
It was a deeply ironic move for a company that’s made security and privacy the core of its marketing strategy (business and governments that use BlackBerry Enterprise Server have their own encryption keys and can’t have their messages read through this back door, apparently).
The RCMP obtained the decryption key, with a court order, as part of an investigation into the Montreal Mafia.
But questions remained about how the RCMP obtained the key, how it was used and how the messages were incepted. It was something the RCMP, and prosecutors, had no desire to talk about.
The defendants in the Mafia case were allowed to plea guilty to less serious charges, so that police and prosecutors wouldn’t have to disclose details of the surveillance operation to the defence and the public.
For months, prosecutors fought several media outlets in court, in an effort to maintain a publication ban on the details that had been revealed.
Last week, that ban was lifted, revealing that the RCMP has spied on thousands of Canadian with no oversight since 2005.
According to Motherboard, the RCMP has been using devices that imitate cell phone towers, forcing all phones within a certain radius – up to two kilometres – to connect to them, revealing the “handset’s unique ID, the ID of the phone’s SIM card, and its carrier and country of origin. Some IMSI catchers are capable of intercepting texts and phone calls. “
Still, there are many questions that the RCMP and BlackBerry have yet to answer.
“We right now, as the Canadian public, have no idea where they’re being used, when, what the requirements are for these technologies being used and what’s happening to the data of everyone being caught up in their sweep,” Laura Tribe, the digital rights specialist at OpenMedia told the CBC.
The RCMP has a history of conducting secret illegal and often unauthorized spying operations. Last month, it came out that RCMP officers spied on journalists without authorization.
It’s nothing new; the RCMP’s Security Service was shut down after its officers were found to be committing criminal offences, including illegal wiretaps.
It’s a history that raises the question – if the RCMP has BlackBerry’s master key, what else have they done with it?
And that may not be the most concerning aspect of BlackBerry’s quiet and consistent acquiescence to authority. It’s the fact that the RCMP aren’t alone.
BlackBerry doesn’t like to talk about its cooperation with authorities, while many other large tech companies release transparency reports, it doesn’t. However, according to CBC, BlackBerry has helped police in “dozens of countries.” But just which countries remains a secret.
While RCMP officers may sometimes overstep their bounds, they still have to operate in a country that has laws in place to protect the public from these types of abuses. That’s not the case in many other countries.
Could some of those countries be among the dozens where BlackBerry has helped police? Have agencies in those countries also received BlackBerry’s master key? Could foreign intelligence agencies have obtained it?
What about countries where corrupt police officers regularly work with criminal gangs? Are any of those on the list?
There’s no way to know.