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Duh, Eh! Canadian Cops Can Decrypt Your BlackBerry

UPDATED April 18 with statement from BlackBerry.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has accessed and read encrypted communications sent among BlackBerry devices as part of an investigation, according to a report today (April 14) in Vice's Motherboard section. The Motherboard report treats this as a breathtaking revelation, but a properly bilingual Canadian response might be: No merde, bro.

RCMP officers in dress colors during the 2014 Musical Ride in Ottawa. Credit: Mariemily Photos/Shutterstock

(Image credit: RCMP officers in dress colors during the 2014 Musical Ride in Ottawa. Credit: Mariemily Photos/Shutterstock)

BlackBerry has always been able to read encrypted instant messages, calls and texts sent to and from consumer BlackBerry devices. It shouldn't come as a surprise that BlackBerry, as a Canadian company, cooperated (willingly or not) with the RCMP, which in some ways functions as Canada's equivalent of the FBI.

This is how it works in most countries: The government will have privileged access to the workings of domestic companies, especially the big ones. This is the kind of arrangement the FBI has with AT&T and Verizon, and would like to have with Apple. But Apple, thanks to a strong American Bill of Rights, is able to refuse certain requests (though it cooperates with others) — for now.

MORE: Apple vs. FBI: What Happened and Why It Still Matters

The BlackBerry access came about during Project Clemenza, a four-year RCMP investigation apparently named after a Godfather character. The investigation probed Mafia activity in the Montreal area, where both the local Rizzuto family and the New York-based Bonnano family have been active. Halfway through the investigation, the body of acting Bonnano boss Salvatore "Sal the Iron Worker" Montagna was found floating in a river near Montreal.

In a 2014 press statement about Project Clemenza was this paragraph: "Through the interception of electronic communications on BlackBerry devices (PIN to PIN messaging), the investigators were able to identify the suspects in relation to a series of violent crimes committed on the Montréal territory between 2010 and 2012 . . . Over one million private messages were intercepted and analyzed as evidence using the PIN to PIN interception technique. This was the first time that this technique was used on such a large scale in a major investigation in North America."

Vice, itself founded in Montreal, got hold of court documents that backed up that claim. According to Vice, the Mounties had a server that intercepted BlackBerry messages sent by suspects in Project Clemenza and decrypted them on the spot.

Defense attorneys for some of the seven men accused in Montagna's murder wanted that key revealed in open court, but the RCMP convinced the court that it would be dangerous to do so. (All seven defendants pleaded guilty last month.)

Why BlackBerry's Different

In the wake of the Apple-vs.-FBI brouhaha over San Bernardino, Calif., shooter Syed Rizwan Farook's encrypted iPhone, this might seem like a major revelation. But it's not.

Apple didn't have the key to decrypt Farook's device and would have had to create new software that might help decrypt it. BlackBerry, by contrast, has always had the keys to decrypt consumer BlackBerry devices, and couldn't have truthfully argued that it didn't.

There are two kinds of BlackBerry device: those issued by companies and other large enterprises to staffers, and those bought individually by consumers.

Corporate BlackBerry devices are "provisioned"(made to work properly) by BlackBerry Enterprise Servers (BES) set up by enterprise IT departments, which log the messages, texts and phone calls from those phones — and hold the encryption keys used to secure those communications.

Consumer BlackBerrys don't rely on corporate BES servers. Instead, BlackBerry directly provisions those phones with its own "global" BES servers. The provisioned devices can be anywhere, used by anyone, although BlackBerry itself does run separate BES servers for some countries. The most important part is that BlackBerry itself holds the encryption keys for all communications to and from those devices.

It's good for users of non-BES-provisioned BlackBerry devices to be reminded that BlackBerry can read their messages.

That's always been the case. It's why the governments of India and several Arab countries threatened to ban BlackBerrys several years ago unless the company gave up the encryption keys. (It eventually cooperated.) It's why BlackBerry (then known as Research In Motion) was able to give London police transcripts of messages sent among rioters in the summer of 2011.

What It Means for BlackBerry Users

So what's the upshot of all this?  It's good for users of non-BES-provisioned BlackBerry devices to be reminded that BlackBerry can read their messages.

Can Dudley Do-Right now read all the messages sent by every non-BES-provisioned BlackBerry device worldwide? Possibly. But it's not clear how exactly the RCMP decrypted the messages. Even if there was a single key that could have decrypted all of them, BlackBerry might have pushed out a new key once Project Clemenza wound down.

Users of BES-provisioned BlackBerrys should be safe wherever they are, at least from the RCMP. Of course, their corporate IT departments can still read their messages.

UPDATE: "We have long been clear in our stance that tech companies as good corporate citizens should comply with reasonable lawful access requests," BlackBerry CEO John Chen said a statement posted on BlackBerry's official blog. "Regarding BlackBerry's assistance, I can reaffirm that we stood by our lawful access principles."

"For BlackBerry, there is a balance between doing what's right, such as helping to apprehend criminals, and preventing government abuse of invading citizens' privacy, including when we refused to give Pakistan access to our servers," Chen said.

"At no point was BlackBerry's BES server involved," Chen said. "Our BES continues to be impenetrable — also without the ability for backdoor access — and is the most secure mobile platform for managing all mobile devices. That's why we are the gold standard in government and enterprise-grade security."