Research in Motion has a problem. For years they promoted themselves as a top-notch mobile security company. During those initial years most of their products were pitched at enterprise users.
Then RIM got into the consumer market.
Most consumers equate RIM’s products with security, email, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), and a tepid suite of other smartphone features. Most of the people who report on the company tend to agonize over the fact that RIM complies with government surveillance laws. Such reports inevitably emerge each time that the public realizes that RIM meets its lawful access requirements for consumer-line products.
In this post, I want to briefly address some of the BBM-related security concerns and try to (again) correct the record surrounding the security promises of the messaging service. After outlining the deficits of consumer BBM products I briefly argue that we need to avoid fetishizing technology, encryption, or the law, and should instead focus on the democratic implications of the lawful access-style laws that governments use to access citizens’ communications.
In the interest of full disclose: I have family and friends who work at Research In Motion. I haven’t spoken to any of them concerning this post or its contents. None directly work on either BBM or RIM’s encryption systems.
Countries around the globe have been threatening Research in Motion (RIM) for months now, publicly stating that they would ban BlackBerry services if RIM refuses to provide decryption keys to various governments. The tech press has generally focused on ‘governments just don’t get how encryption works’ rather than ‘this is how BlackBerry security works, and how government demands affect consumers and businesses alike.’ This post is an effort to more completely respond to the second focus in something approximating comprehensive detail.
I begin by writing openly and (hopefully!) clearly about the nature and deficiencies of BlackBerry security and RIM’s rhetoric around consumer security in particular. After sketching how the BlackBerry ecosystem secures communications data, I pivot to identify many of the countries demanding greater access to BlackBerry-linked data communications. Finally, I suggest RIM might overcome these kinds of governmental demands by transitioning from a 20th to 21st century information company. The BlackBerry server infrastructure, combined with the vertical integration of the rest of their product lines, limits RIM to being a ‘places’ company. I suggest that shifting to a 21st century ‘spaces’ company might limit RIM’s exposure to presently ‘enjoyed’ governmental excesses by forcing governments to rearticulate notions of sovereignty in the face of networked governance.