Citizens turn to Blackberry in the face of government spying

October 9th, 2007

By Chad Skelton
CanWest News Service
Vancouver Sun
October 08, 2007

VANCOUVER — Police often say organized crime in B.C. is big business. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before gangsters adopted the device of choice among corporate workaholics: the BlackBerry.

It has become so popular among B.C. gang members that an internal RCMP “threat assessment” on organized crime produced this year devotes an entire section to the device.

“It’s something we’ve seen increasing over the last three to four years,” Staff Sgt. Bruce Imrie, head of the RCMP’s Vancouver Integrated Technological Crime Unit, said in an interview. And that poses a big challenge for law enforcement, because encryption and security features make the devices much harder to wiretap than land lines or cellphones.

“The BlackBerry (server) was created with corporate data security in mind,” states the RCMP report, obtained by The Vancouver Sun through the Access to Information Act. “Until recently, this system was only affordable by companies such as Telus, CIBC, and the like; they are now more affordable and it is easy for individuals to set-up a network.”

Imrie confirmed when police get a warrant for a criminal’s BlackBerry messages it can be difficult to intercept them.

“The use of BlackBerries may allow them to circumvent lawful access … (with) the encryption involved in the transmission,” said Imrie.

Even when police confiscate a criminal’s actual BlackBerry, he said, cracking its password to view the messages stored on it can be a challenge.

BlackBerries are most popular among a gang’s highest-ranking members, said Imrie.

“Your general street-level criminal doing organized shoplifting is not as likely to have a BlackBerry as your high-end drug trafficker,” he said. “(And) depending on the sophistication of the criminal organization, the use of the BlackBerry seems to increase.”

However, as BlackBerries become more affordable, that distinction is starting to blur, he said, with the devices becoming more prevalent among all types of criminals.

RCMP Insp. Gary Shinkaruk, head of biker gang investigations in B.C., said BlackBerries are “extremely common” among the criminals his unit investigates.

“For a lot of groups, it’s standard practice,” he said.

Research In Motion, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, did not respond to a request from The Sun to comment on its security measures.

However in June, Scott Totzke, RIM’s vice-president of global security, told The Times of London that its encryption is virtually unbreakable.

“Every message that is sent via a BlackBerry is broken up into 2Kb (kilobyte) packets of information, each of which is given a 256-bit key by the BlackBerry server,” said Totzke. “That means to release the contents of a 10Kb e-mail, a person would have to crack five separate keys, and each one would take about as long as it would for the sun to burn out – billion of years.”

The 500-page RCMP report, titled the Integrated Threat Assessment on Organized Crime, is produced each year.

The copy released to The Sun was heavily edited, with the RCMP deleting many sections for security reasons.

Privacy will be the exclusive reserve of the rich and the ‘criminal’, like we said before.

This is of course, only one sort of private network that anyone can set up, and Asterisk is even simpler and more stealthy. A group of people requiring telephone privacy would, for example, set up an asterisk server somewhere, and then distribute handsets to all the members of the group. Once this is done, the following features become available:

  • free phone calls to any member
  • unbreakable encryption
  • no traffic analysis, because no one even knows that a phone call is in progress
  • phone calls from any open wireless access point, so no cellular network triangulation

Since the plaintext and ciphertext of calls are not stored anywhere, this is a better solution for everyone since there is no ‘evidence’ left behind for anyone to trawl through or try to decrypt. If anything at all is found, only a server and some handsets will turn up and no trace that even a single call was made.

It doesn’t take much imagination to substitute the words ‘gangster’ and ‘criminal’ for ‘you’ and ‘me’. If you want to keep the contents of your email private, there are ways to do it right out of the box.

Will we finally see a surge in the use of GPG/PGP? Only time will tell. What is for certain is that there are more people who are thinking about there privacy than ever before, and some of them are taking steps to protect themselves.

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