Blackberry's CEO John Chen feels the company hasn't hit rock-bottom yet. In a post for the company's blog, Chen announces that the phone favored by much of The Establishment will continue to support the hopes and dreams of The Establishment.
There will be no "going dark" at Blackberry.
For years, government officials have pleaded to the technology industry for help yet have been met with disdain. In fact, one of the world’s most powerful tech companies recently refused a lawful access request in an investigation of a known drug dealer because doing so would “substantially tarnish the brand” of the company. We are indeed in a dark place when companies put their reputations above the greater good. At BlackBerry, we understand, arguably more than any other large tech company, the importance of our privacy commitment to product success and brand value: privacy and security form the crux of everything we do. However, our privacy commitment does not extend to criminals.
Chen notably does not use Apple's name, lest it encourage potential customers to seek out a company that gives a damn about its customers' privacy. Chen claims he won't allow criminals to remain hidden from law enforcement if they're using his company's phones and services. All well and good, but that assumes the only
time law enforcement will seek access to encrypted communications and data is when they've obtained a conviction, which is rarely the case.
Sometimes, these agencies are relying on a minimal showing of reasonable suspicion to obtain data/communications with subpoenas and national security letters. Other times, they're working with probable cause and actually obtaining warrants (warrants which also give them permission to seize electronics, thus ending their alleged use in criminal activity). Either way, the question of guilt is still up in the air. What Chen likely means is he won't extend his privacy commitment to people who are suspected of criminal activity, but that doesn't sound nearly as audacious and idealistic as declaring "criminals" will have no place while Chen's in charge.
When your company has been engaged in a multi-year marketshare freefall, it's pretty easy to take shots at companies who worry about possibly "tarnished reputations." Outside of the government itself, Blackberry is nobody's idea of an innovator or a viable threat. When Chen says he's on the side of the government, it's no surprise, as the government has been on his company's side for several years now.
From this self-interested take on the encryption debate, Chen moves on to making questionable assertions about the public's obligation to assist law enforcement.
We reject the notion that tech companies should refuse reasonable, lawful access requests. Just as individual citizens bear responsibility to help thwart crime when they can safely do so, so do corporations have a responsibility to do what they can, within legal and ethical boundaries, to help law enforcement in its mission to protect us.
Just to be clear, citizens are not obligated to "thwart crime." Neither is law enforcement, for that matter. Both can make reasonable efforts to deter
criminal activity, but nobody's charged with "thwarting crime." This is why law enforcement agencies must use warrants and other legal paperwork to demand this information. The receiving party's obligation doesn't begin until the paperwork is in hand. Chen almost suggests private companies should be going above and beyond what is required by these court orders.
The key issue in the case
Chen doesn't refer to by name is a 1789 law that the feds are using to avoid dealing with the Fifth Amendment. They want Apple to unlock a phone so they can access the contents, rather than spending any more time asking the detained suspect to do this. Apple has refused. It has also noted that, even if it does comply with this order, it will be unable to do so with its newer iPhones.
Chen thinks Apple should just comply with the order "for the greater good," apparently never considering the fact that forcing the government to actually operate within the confines of existing statutes would perhaps result in a form of "greater good" itself.
He then goes on to state his support for encryption and opposition to encryption bans or backdoors. This seems highly unlikely considering his earlier statements about granting the government access to phone contents. He notes he has pulled his products from countries that have demanded backdoors (but not all of them
), but doesn't appear to be able to reconcile Blackberry's actions with his criticism of Apple's. Instead, he makes this unsupported statement:
Make no mistake: service providers bear a dual responsibility to protect customer privacy zealously and to cooperate with lawful requests for investigative assistance.
Very idealistic, but whether or not Apple wins this particular battle (and loses more of Chen's respect, whatever that's worth), it will make no difference in the future. Blackberry offers encryption, but Chen's post contains no details about his company's ability to decrypt to comply with law enforcement orders. Blackberry's early implementation of encrypted communications actually led to a former NSA official
claiming this was the reason for its downfall. So, unless Blackberry is creating escrow keys, it will be no more cooperative than Apple when the government comes asking for access to communications.
And this is nothing new for Chen. He's been claiming there's some mythical middle ground that will serve both phone manufacturers and the government
since a few weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack
. Several months later, his message remains unchanged. There's a balance here, and it must be tipped in favor of law enforcement… for the "greater good."