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BlackBerry Encryption Concerns Justified, Experts Say

August 16, 2010

The countries that have threatened to ban certain features of BlackBerry smartphones due to the encryption technology used on the handsets have legitimate concerns, according to a reports published by both the AP and AFP over the weekend.

India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are among the countries that have threatened to ban certain features of the Research In Motion (RIM)-developed smartphones due to security features that make it impossible for their respective governments to monitor communications.

The concern is that the devices could be used by terrorists, and according to U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit Chief Technology Officer John Bumgarner, those fears are far from unfounded.

“There are lots of governments today, including the United States, with intelligence operations that can be impeded by technologies utilizing some kind of encryption,” Bumgarner told AFP reporter Glenn Chapman Sunday. “The argument is that technology such as BlackBerry, Google Talk, or Skype is impacting the ability to identify terrorist operations in their borders.”

In fact, according to Bumgarner, an Al-Qaeda support group has reportedly developed a series of encryption tools for email and Internet telephone calls–”so terrorist operatives could securely communicate with each other anywhere in the world,” he said.

Furthermore, according to AP Technology Writer Peter Svensson, the U.S. also had similar concerns in the past.

“In fact, until 1996, encryption at the level commonly in use today was classified as a munition. Companies that exported Web browsers and other software products had to make alternative versions with much weaker encryption for use abroad,” Svensson said in an August 15 report.

“The First Amendment made it impossible to restrict encryption technology inside the U.S. But the Clinton administration still tried to get the industry to adopt the ‘Clipper Chip,’ a device that would encrypt communications but leave a ‘backdoor’ for the government to decrypt messages. The idea led to a public outcry and had technical shortcomings, and it was ultimately abandoned,” he added.

During his presidency, Clinton would ultimately relax rules on the exporting of encryption technology, but would do so “over the objections of its attorney general and FBI director,” claimed Svensson.

The ‘Clipper Chip’ idea briefly resurfaced following the September 11 terrorist attacks, and in 2003, the Justice Department unsuccessfully moved to lengthen prison sentences for criminals who took advantage of encryption technology. Since then, however, “the U.S. government has more or less accepted that encryption is here to stay,” the AP technology writer said.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis addressed the controversy surrounding the BlackBerry handsets, pointing out that the encryption issue was not unique to his company’s smartphones.

“Everything on the Internet is encrypted. This is not a BlackBerry-only issue. If they can’t deal with the Internet, they should shut it off,” he told the WSJ reporters, adding that he felt his company’s devices were being unfairly singled out by international governments and that he was confident that he would be able to keep the device from getting banned internationally.

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