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South Africa joins the call for BlackBerry messaging keys

Miscreants don't care for the secure email, seemingly

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South Africa has joined the call for access to the BlackBerry Messaging service, quoting the usual security concerns and pointing out that the UK plans much the same thing.

BBM, the BlackBerry messaging service, has become the medium of choice for the discerning ne'er-do-well, which is strange considering it is a good deal less secure than the email offered by the same handset. But the instant nature of messaging appeals to everyone, prompting the new action from the South Africans:

"There is evidence that criminals are now using BBM to plan and execute crime," the deputy comms minister told his audience at a London conference on African telecommunications: "We want to review BBM like in the UK and Saudi Arabia."

BlackBerry email services are very hard to intercept when hosted by an enterprise, but surprisingly easy to tap into when hosted by RIM itself. "Email messages that are sent between the BlackBerry Internet Service and your BlackBerry device are not encrypted," the company admits (PDF), depending instead on the carrier's cryptography. That doesn't mean the messages are in clear, almost all GSM networks encrypt their traffic (not that this matters in the case of government surveillance) but one might imagine the unique PIN attached to every BlackBerry Messenger account would make it more secure.

Sadly (for the criminals) that is not the case:

"By default, each device uses the same global PIN encryption key, which Research In Motion adds to the device during the manufacturing process", the documentation on BlackBerry's enterprise server explains. "Because all devices share the same global PIN encryption key, there is a limit to how effectively PIN messages are encrypted ... Encryption using the global PIN encryption key is sometimes referred to as 'scrambling'."

It seems that RIM has already shared that key with India, Saudi Arabia probably has a copy too and one can be certain that the UK and US governments wouldn't be without a copy.

So if you're a South African criminal, or a London rioter, then you need to get yourself a BlackBerry server and use email for your planning. Or perhaps you shouldn't. ®

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