Spies, secrets and smart-phones

SOME sort of a deal seems to have been thrashed out over the weekend, according to reports from Saudi Arabia, under which its spooks will be able to snoop to their heart’s content on messages sent over BlackBerrys within the kingdom. All last week, as it negotiated with the Saudi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Indian authorities over their demands for monitoring, the smart-phones’ Canadian maker, Research In Motion (RIM), was dodging journalists’ demands for proper explanations about what exactly is negotiable about the phones’ security. The Economist asked five times in four days for an interview, and got nowhere. Other news organisations had a similar experience.

The best we could get from the company was a series of tight-lipped statements, of which the least cryptic was this one:

RIM has spent over a decade building a very strong security architecture to meet our enterprise customers’ strict security requirements around the world. It is a solution that we are very proud of, and it has helped us become the number one choice for enterprises and governments. In recent days there has been a range of commentary, speculation, and misrepresentation regarding this solution and we want to take the opportunity to set the record straight. There is only one BlackBerry enterprise solution available to our customers around the world and it remains unchanged in all of the markets we operate in. RIM cooperates with all governments with a consistent standard and the same degree of respect. Any claims that we provide, or have ever provided, something unique to the government of one country that we have not offered to the governments of all countries, are unfounded. The BlackBerry enterprise solution was designed to preclude RIM, or any third party, from reading encrypted information under any circumstances since RIM does not store or have access to the encrypted data.

RIM cannot accommodate any request for a copy of a customer’s encryption key, since at no time does RIM, or any wireless network operator or any third party, ever possess a copy of the key.  This means that customers of the BlackBerry enterprise solution can maintain confidence in the integrity of the security architecture without fear of compromise.

Seems, at first glance, pretty categorical and reassuring, doesn’t it? But hang on. First, all of the reassurances about message security seem only to apply to “enterprise” customers—large organisations that give BlackBerrys to their staff, and which route messages through a server on their own premises. RIM’s statement appears to make no promises to the millions of BlackBerry users worldwide who are contracted directly to a mobile-telecoms operator. Their messages are routed via RIM’s own servers, which are dotted around the world. Wherever RIM puts them, it has to comply with local authorities’ demands for access. It is reported that RIM has agreed to put servers inside Saudi territory, which would of course be under Saudi jurisdiction. Presumably the other governments demanding greater access to message monitoring will want something similar, since the company does say it co-operates with all governments “with a consistent standard”.

RIM’s guarantee of the impregnability of customers’ encryption keys is also less impressive than it appears. Let’s leave aside for a moment the long history of “uncrackable” codes proving crackable after all. All that RIM is saying is that while the message is encrypted it is not possible to provide a key to decrypt it. What about at either end of the encryption process? E-mails sent encrypted from a BlackBerry handset at some point have to be decrypted and sent to the recipient’s e-mail server. That is done either by the “enterprise” server, for those large BlackBerry users that have them, or in RIM’s own servers in the case of people who have their BlackBerry contract with a local telecoms firm. So at the very least, anyone who has a BlackBerry contract with a Saudi telecoms operator, or whose Saudi employer provides his Blackberry, would now seem to have his e-mails at risk of being read if the authorities demand this.

But what the Saudis were concerned about was not so much e-mails but those “uncrackable” instant-messaging chats. When the company says it does not have, and cannot provide, a key to decrypt them as they travel from handset to handset, what this may mean, says Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University in England, is that a new key is generated for each chat, and that only the paired handsets at either end have that key. If that is the case, he says, it might be rather difficult to decode those messages’ contents while they are encrypted and in transmission (though it would not be hard to detect who has sent a message to whom, and when).

The weakest link

However, as we have reported before, the handsets themselves are the weakest link in BlackBerry security. Last year the UAE’s state-controlled telecoms operator, Etisalat, sent out what it insists was a software patch to improve BlackBerrys’ performance. RIM put out an indignant statement saying that  “independent sources” had concluded that the patch could “enable unauthorised access to private or confidential information stored on the user’s smartphone.” In plain language: it appeared to be spyware. RIM gave users advice on how to remove it from their handsets.

The easiest way for spooks to read all of a surveillance target’s messages (including e-mails, texts, web forms) might be to do more stealthily what Etisalat seems (if you accept RIM’s theory) to have tried so clumsily to do: push a piece of spyware out to his handset—perhaps disguised as, or hidden in, a software update. This blogger receives software patches regularly and without warning on his company BlackBerry and would have no idea if one of them were part of a dastardly MI5 plot (paranoid, moi?).

According to an Indian government document leaked to the Economic Times last week, RIM has promised to provide the “tools”, within 8 months, for Indian spooks to read BlackBerry instant-messaging chats. It would be a huge blow to its reputation if it were ever found to have helped spy agencies put spyware on users’ handsets. So perhaps RIM itself would not risk that. But maybe others can provide a “solution” that can push snooping software on to handsets. America’s spies seem to think China’s spies can do this: last year Joel Brenner, then a senior counterintelligence official, told a security conference near CIA headquarters that during the Beijing Olympics “your phone or BlackBerry could have been tagged, tracked, monitored, and exploited between your disembarking the airplane and reaching the taxi stand at the airport. And when you emailed back home, some or all of the malware may have migrated to your home server. This is not hypothetical.”

Mark Rasch, former head of the computer crimes unit at the United States Department of Justice told Reuters that the ability to tap into messages is routine for security agencies around the world, and he should know. American authorities have huge powers, under the post 9/11 Patriot Act and other laws, to demand compliance with wiretapping orders, to gag those who are complying with them and grant them immunity against any legal consequences. So basically, it’s a licence to fib, or at least to keep stumm: if any smart-phone or telecoms provider were letting Uncle Sam take a peep at our messages, they wouldn’t be able to tell us, and even if we found out we couldn’t sue them. Is it plausible that the American authorities, after 9/11, would let people walk around with devices that send completely uncrackable messages? Surely they can read them, says Bruce Schneier, another internet-security expert, “You know they do.”

Given India’s tough line (unsurprising, given its terrorism worries), if it doesn’t get the “tools” to read messenger chats, then RIM may be shut out of a huge market; on the other hand, if BlackBerry services are not blocked in India in the coming months, this is bound to raise suspicions that its authorities have somehow gained (not necessarily from RIM itself) the means to read chats and other messages.

All this leaves RIM in a difficult situation. It doesn’t want to be, and perhaps may not be able to be, entirely open about what sort of access to messages it offers the authorities in different countries. The trouble is, as it notes in its statement, it has to a large degree built its brand on the supposed uncrackability of BlackBerry messages—more than rival brands have done. The feature that set its products apart from other smart-phones is now being thrown into doubt: and at an especially awkward time. The launch last week of the new generation BlackBerry, the Torch, was overshadowed not just by the disputes with various governments over monitoring, but by a Nielsen survey which showed that, unlike iPhone and Android users, only a minority of BlackBerry owners are thinking of buying another BlackBerry next time. The company’s evasiveness on the security issue is hardly going to encourage them to stay loyal.

Pretending not to listen

What about all those other supposedly hack-proof means of communication, such as Skype internet telephony and Google Mail, both of which are “encrypted”. A security pundit interviewed on BBC television’s “Newsnight” a few days ago speculated that the American authorities are only pretending when they claim they still can’t tap into Skype calls. This was then put to Lord West, a former British security minister. His response was fascinating:

When I come on a programme like this I’m always very nervous, ‘cos I know so much. And also people…don’t necessarily always tell the truth. That sounds an awful thing to say but do you want anyone to know that you can get into very high-encrypted stuff? No, you can say “we don’t, we can’t do it”. 

He then went on to say how “mind-boggling” are the capabilities of America’s National Security Agency and its British counterpart, GCHQ. To this blogger, that sounded like: “Yes of course we can hack Skype calls and all the rest, but we have to pretend we can’t”. Mr Anderson notes that there are all sorts of other internet-based services that provide encrypted messaging, including various dungeons-and-dragons online games. As these proliferate, providing terrorists and crime gangs with secure cyber-meeting places, the spooks will have to keep chasing them: serving papers on the hosts where possible, seeking deals with them otherwise. This is tricky but not impossible if you are the United States. For less powerful nations like the UAE, it is harder to get co-operation, and simply blocking all such secure-message services would do great economic damage.

Not all governments may get all of the snooping powers they want (RIM seems to be trying to persuade some to make do with the “metadata” of messages—who sent a message to whom, and when—rather than their contents). Even so, whether you are an international terrorist, an investment banker, or indeed an intelligence agent, given the technical capacity and the legal powers at the disposal of the big world powers, it seems that even on “secure” and “encrypted” channels, you can never be quite sure that someone isn’t listening in:

Number Two: We want information, information, information…
The Prisoner: You won’t get it.
Number Two: By hook or by crook, we will.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2010/08/blackberrys_and_encryption