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BlackBerry-induced chaos

August 11, 2011

Rioters in England have been using semi-secure BlackBerry messages that make it harder for law enforcement to identify suspects from their messages. But BlackBerry says it is cooperating with law enforcement officials.

Rioters have been using the BlackBerry Messaging systemImage: DPA

Much of the recent unrest in English cities has been coordinated by the BlackBerry Messenger system, an instant-message feature that is available on all BlackBerry smartphones.

Some rioters are believed to have arranged locations and times by sending secure messages between each other.

On Tuesday, David Lammy, a member of parliament for Tottenham, where London's worst riots in decades began on Saturday, called for Research in Motion, the Canadian company behind BlackBerry, to halt the messaging system in the UK while the country dealt with the looting and violence that began on Saturday.

"This is one of the reasons why unsophisticated criminals are outfoxing an otherwise sophisticated police force," he tweeted. "BBM is different as it is encrypted and police can't access it."

Riot police
Riots have been going on in various parts of the United Kingdom since SaturdayImage: dapd

BlackBerry messages are transmitted within RIM's network, and, unlike normal text messages or standard e-mails, are not sent openly over mobile phone networks or the Internet. BBM users do not incur additional costs for using such messages, which makes them attractive to price-conscious consumers as text messages normally incur charges on a per message basis.

"We feel for those impacted by recent days' riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can," Patrick Spence, a RIM spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail to Deutsche Welle.

"As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement and regulatory officials," he added while declining to answer any specific questions. "Similar to other technology providers in the UK we comply with The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and cooperate fully with the Home Office and UK police forces."

However, Research in Motion has said very little about what technical assistance that it has provided to Scotland Yard.

Technical specifications

According to a BlackBerry technical document, the company describes the BBM system as "scrambled - but not encrypted - messages," meaning the company could technically decode messages sent through the network.

"Every BlackBerry device can decrypt every message that it receives because every BlackBerry device stores the same encryption key," the document said. "Message encryption does not prevent a BlackBerry device other than the intended recipient from decrypting the message."

Research In Motion has said that the BBM system is not encryptedImage: AP

The messages use a high level of coding called triple DES, which makes it difficult to access the actual contents of a given message.

A March 2011 bulletin published online by the Communications Security Establishment Canada, an advisory body to the Canadian government, stated that BlackBerry's messaging system is "not suitable for exchanging sensitive messages."

In a June 2010 post, a Canadian BlackBerry blog, Crackberry, warned BlackBerry users that "if served with a warrant RIM will provide the plain text of your messages."

It is possible, however, for BlackBerry messages and e-mails to be made completely unreadable to RIM, governments and any other third-party. This requires "end-to-end" encryption, which makes sure that the message is encrypted prior to being transmitted from the BlackBerry, through the RIM network. Such high levels of complete encryption are only available at RIM's "enterprise solution," which is typically only used by companies or governments.

Compelling RIM to disclose information

British tech law expert Mike Conradi, an attorney with the London law firm DLA Piper, told Deutsche Welle that British law enforcement would not be able to get blanket access to even the less secure BlackBerry messages.

The government and law enforcement could compel RIM to give up some dataImage: Fotolia/Yong Hian Lim

But he also noted that the British Secretary of State has the authority, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), to compel RIM to disclose information about a specific warrant targeted at a particular person, which can only even be applied for by some top law enforcement officials.

"[In that case,] BlackBerry would be compelled to provide all records for a specific person," Conradi said, adding that using this power under RIPA is common.

"RIPA relates only to the content, and not the fact that messages have been sent and received. Whether or not RIM could disclose that [outside of being compelled to] is a matter of contract with them and their customers.

"The conclusion that is that [RIM] could disclose to the police information, [such as high-traffic phone numbers] without naming individuals and geographic information," Conradi added. "They don't have to do that, but they would be legally permitted. What they could not do is look at the contents of the messages and then tip the police off."

Still, it remains unclear exactly how much British law enforcement has been granted access to the BBM network.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh of the Metropolitan police, said: "Police have got extensive monitoring of this BlackBerry messaging model and actually, a lot of people who are seeing these BlackBerry messages are forwarding them to the police," without elaborating on how Scotland Yard was monitoring this messaging traffic.

Author: Cyrus Farivar

Editor: Sean Sinico