Translated: BlackBerry CEO John Chen on cops-snooping-on-BBM

The TL;DR you need

BlackBerry CEO John Chen has responded to last week's reheated news that police can pull text messages from BlackBerry handsets.

The chief exec's blog post can be found here, and our FAQ on the matter is right here. Basically, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) chats sent via BIS (the BlackBerry Internet Service) are encrypted and decrypted using a globally shared key. Cops and g-men can request a copy of this key via surveillance laws to decode any chatter intercepted from BIS.

All caught up? Good, let's have a line-by-line look at Chen's letter:

When it comes to doing the right thing in difficult situations, BlackBerry's guiding principle has been to do what is right for the citizenry, within legal and ethical boundaries.

That, and building tiny keyboards on your phone.

We have long been clear in our stance that tech companies as good corporate citizens should comply with reasonable lawful access requests. I have stated before that we are indeed in a dark place when companies put their reputations above the greater good.

Yeah, we totally handed over the keys.

This very belief was put to the test in an old case that recently resurfaced in the news, which speculated on and challenged BlackBerry's corporate and ethical principles. In the end, the case resulted in a major criminal organization being dismantled. Regarding BlackBerry's assistance, I can reaffirm that we stood by our lawful access principles.

In other words...

True Lies still

John, did you sell out any customers?

True Lies still

Yes, but they were all bad

In short, your BIS data will be protected, so long as BlackBerry and the police don't consider you a criminal. That's fine, they're definitely not the only vendor, carrier or service provider to cooperate with law enforcement and respect the legal process. It has to make some people who are considered "criminal" to stricter regimes a bit uneasy, however.

Furthermore, at no point was BlackBerry's BES [BlackBerry Enterprise] server involved. Our BES continues to be impenetrable – also without the ability for backdoor access – and is the most secure mobile platform for managing all mobile devices. That's why we are the gold standard in government and enterprise-grade security.

Here's the business pitch, and the real meat of the matter. BlackBerry knows that the real concern for its customers is not the security of the consumer BIS chat, particularly in a criminal case everyone has known about for years.

BIS can only be secured to a point, everyone's handset has to have the key, and the police can ask for that key using the proper procedures. Chen knows this. The enterprise customers know this. The carriers know it. The issue is BES, which is the huge money-maker for BlackBerry and is sold almost entirely based on its security. That service, as Chen is eager to point out, has not been compromised.

Also, if you're an organized crime boss, you'll probably want to move over to BES. We hear it's less likely to get you pinched.

For BlackBerry, there is a balance between doing what's right, such as helping to apprehend criminals, and preventing government abuse of invading citizens' privacy, including when we refused to give Pakistan access to our servers. We have been able to find this balance even as governments have pressured us to change our ethical grounds. Despite these pressures, our position has been unwavering and our actions are proof we commit to these principles.

Here's where things could get a bit dicey for BlackBerry. Apple CEO Tim Cook's contention in his battle with the government was that privacy rules should not be flexible, and that the people who develop the technology should not be the moral arbiter of who does and doesn't deserve to be protected.

It's a bit jarring for Chen and BlackBerry to brag about the security of their platforms on one hand, then proudly announce that they've helped the government arrest people by handing over access to personal data. I'm sure more than a few of those lucrative BES customers BlackBerry touts as being secure would not want to be subjected to these same criteria. ®

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