It looks like while the U.S. continues its national debate over privacy versus security in the form of the Apple-FBI dispute, Canadian police have been quietly accessing Canadian phones for years without resistance.
Motherboard reports that the RCMP has had a global encryption key to BlackBerry devices since 2010.
This was revealed by documents made public following the conviction of a Montreal crime syndicate for a 2011 murder. They shed light on the extent to which BlackBerry and Rogers Communications cooperated with law enforcement.
The key to which Canadian police have access is capable of decoding “virtually any BlackBerry message sent from one device to another,” Motherboard reports.
During the investigation, around one million PIN-to-PIN BlackBerry messages were unlocked.
The revelation did not come easily.
According to the report, the government fought for years to hide the fact that they held the key. How the government obtained it in the first place was not revealed. BlackBerry and the RCMP have fought a judge’s orders to disclose more information on their relationship.
Of the seven men arrested in connection with the murder of Sal “the Ironworker” Montagna, a member of the New York Bonanno crime family, six demanded in court to know how police intercepted their communications.
Prosecution revealed that the police had gone to Rogers or BlackBerry for assistance in decrypting BBM messages. This required both court authorization and cooperation from BlackBerry or Rogers to intercept said messages as well as the global encryption code.
The Motherboard report says that the key does not provide the police access to government and business workers, who make up the majority of BlackBerry’s clientele, but does unlock private smartphones without their knowledge.
This code, which BlackBerry embeds into its consumer phones allows encrypted PIN-to-PIN BBM messages to be read. Users of the company’s Business Enterprise Servers are able to use individual encryption keys, inaccessible to BlackBerry.
This news comes in wake of the FBI’s public fight to have Apple decrypt the iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter. It has stirred a national debate over privacy over security, with many tech executives sympathising with Apple’s resistance towards granting U.S. law enforcement indiscriminate access to its smartphones.
Over the last year, BlackBerry under the leadership of John Chen has positioned itself as a mobile security company by shifting focus from physical devices to solutions in mobile device management and secure networked crisis communications.
“While we regret leaving this important market and our valued customers there, remaining in Pakistan would have meant forfeiting our commitment to protect our users’ privacy,” company CEO Marty Beard wrote in a statement at the time. “That is a compromise we are not willing to make.”