Security concerns prompt French BlackBerry ban

French government members and their advisors have been told not to use BlackBerry smartphones, for national security reasons. The ban on BlackBerry devices is just one of the IT challenges facing new National Assembly members as they take their seats following Sunday’s elections.

The smartphones, developed by Canadian company Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM), send and receive e-mail through just a handful of servers in the U.K.and in North America — a reality brought home when a failed software upgrade to the North American servers in April abruptly halted service to BlackBerry users there.

This concentration of data poses a threat to national security, according to Alain Juillet, senior economic intelligence advisor to the French Prime Minister, because of the risk of data interception.

There’s reason to believe that Juillet knows what he’s talking about when it comes to industrial or political espionage: after a career in retail, Juillet made headlines in October 2002, when he was appointed Director of Intelligence for the French General Directorate of External Security, the country’s foreign security service, moving to the role of senior economic intelligence advisor in December 2003.

In his most recent post, he has long maintained that French government and businesses should be more wary of how they use technology to exchange information.

The French Secretary-General for National Defense first circulated advice to government officials two years ago, warning them not to use BlackBerry devices.

That same advice has now been reissued, Juillet’s office said Wednesday.

In response, RIM insisted that all data sent over the BlackBerry network is secure because it is encrypted with the 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), and because e-mail messages’ origin cannot be traced or analyzed for content. Even RIM itself cannot view the data flowing over its own network, the company said.

“Recent news reports, originating in France and rehashing a 2 year-old rumor that speculates that data transmitted over the BlackBerry Enterprise Solution can be intercepted and read by the NSA (National Security Agency) in the U.S. or other ‘spy’ organizations are based on false and misleading information,” the company said in a statement issued Wednesday.

NATO and the U.K. government have approved the BlackBerry Enterprise Solution for the wireless transmission of sensitive data under “restricted” classification, RIM said. Security agencies in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Austria and Canada have accredited the network, with additional certification processes under way in the Netherlands and Germany.

The republication of the advice coincides with the arrival of newly elected officials and their advisors, unfamiliar with the French administration’s rules and traditions on using IT, in the National Assembly, following Sunday’s national elections.

Many of the new arrivals will face another IT challenge as they move into their offices at the National Assembly: learning to use an unfamiliar suite of software on their computer.

Last year, the outgoing National Assembly voted to install open-source software on their desktop machines. That software is already installed on the machines of the assembly’s existing members: new members get their software update after being allocated an office. Government officials were not immediately available to identify which open-source software is being used.

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