RIM touts BlackBerry’s uncrackability

Back in March, when an Indian newspaper reported that the country’s government was considering banning BlackBerrys, the maker of the ubiquitous devices, Canada’s Research in Motion, was sent into a frenzy of firefighting.

The Indian government’s supposed reasoning was that BlackBerrys could be used by terrorists to co-ordinate their activities, and because their email traffic is encrypted, the Indian intelligence agencies would not be able to intercept terrorist messages.

Whether this was a misunderstanding of India’s impenetrable bureaucracy or just plain wrong, the Indian government confirmed in June that it was not going to ban the use of the iconic mobile email device after all.

“We cannot throw out BlackBerry services,” communications minister A Raja told the Indian press, “but the question is how to keep this service while taking care of security measures at the same time.”

And that is a question that will have occurred to businesses too. The devices and the network that supports them have become integral to their communications infrastructure.

Research in Motion is still riding high on the runaway success of the BlackBerry. In 2008 it is hardly a new kid on the block, but it is still enjoying phenomenal rates of revenue growth.

In the second quarter of its current financial year, it took revenues of $2.2 billion, up 107% compared with the same quarter the previous year. That this result ‘disappointed’ investors is testament to the value of the company.

But threats to that value are on the horizon. Apple’s iPhone is a must-have email device for a younger demographic, while Google’s eagerly awaited entrance to the phone operating system market with Android platform promises to ignite mobile software innovation.

It is what troubles the Indian government, however, that RIM hopes will keep businesses loyal to their ‘CrackBerrys’: the impenetrability of its messaging network.

“The encryption key for the emails sent on BlackBerry is created by the user,” explains Scott Totzke, director of RIM’s global security group. “There is no way of RIM or anyone else getting their hands on it.”

Its centralised management system also helps provide businesses with peace of mind, says Totzke. “We operate in 135 countries with 350 different carriers, but a multi-national can manage the security policies on all their devices across the world from one place,” he says. (Totzke advises that all businesses impose a device password on the BlackBerrys and a reasonable lock-out time – such as one minute.)

Device management will become all the more important as mobile devices begin to support more sophisticated applications. RIM recently announced a deal with SAP so BlackBerrys could front-end the enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, for example.

The stakes for mobile security are high. While the BlackBerry software platform runs on a layer of Java that prevents any bugs or virus from controlling the fundamental functionality of the phone, Totzke says, this is not true of all platforms.

A co-ordinated denial-of-service attack on the mobile telephony infrastructure, triggered by mobile-borne malware on these less secure platforms, is not only possible but probable, he says. “It is something that really might happen.”

Further reading

The Curse of the CrackBerry

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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