Calling BlackBerry Users: Who's Spying on Your E-mail?
A day after RIM debuted its latest entry in the it's-not-an-iPhone-but-an-amazing-facsimile contest, the BlackBerry Torch 9800, it got a kick in the keister from Saudi Arabia.
[ Also on InfoWorld: Cringely says the mobile world is a scary place now that your iPhone may be spying on you. | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]
Why? Because RIM's private communications network is impenetrable by law enforcement and intelligence agencies in those countries. (Also, you can view naughty websites on your BlackBerry, though why you'd want to on that tiny screen is a mystery to me.)
In the United States and other Western nations, RIM doesn't have this problem. Why? Because the feds and the spooks can eavesdrop on BlackBerrys as much as they'd like, given the proper authority. Think about that the next time you thumb a risque joke to a business colleague.
Usually wiretapping requests are handled by the big telecom carriers, leaving the handset manufacturers all in the same boat. If Uncle Sam wants to tap AT&T's network (and, trust me, he does), it's the same for any smartphone that runs on it, from the iPhone to the Backflip. But BlackBerry runs its own network using end-to-end encryption, so its devices are being singled out for "special" treatment. RIM is truly screwed in a way that Apple and Motorola are not.
Of course, law enforcement may have legitimate reasons for spying on your email -- but only if a court has determined there's enough probable cause to warrant naming you as a suspect in an investigation.
That's why the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program (which is apparently still going on, as far as anyone can determine, though it no longer creates big headlines) was such a big deal.
When left without oversight, government agencies tend to run their own agendas, even if that leaves treadmarks on the U.S. Constitution. It doesn't matter whether you've got donkeys or elephants in the White House; it's just the nature of the beast.
In the era of "you're a terrorist if we say you're a terrorist," anyone can be a suspect at any time. Which means we're all suspects. That also means you should assume your email is being read by people other than its recipients. In this case, a little paranoia goes a long way.
I suspect BlackBerry will reach a compromise with all of these governments, who would, after all, be hurting some of their own citizens as well. I'd wager a fair number of Saudi and UAE oil execs are carrying a BlackBerry on their belts at this moment. They can't be very happy about these bans. But that compromise will ultimately mean less security for BlackBerry users. Because once you let the spooks in, other bad guys are sure to follow.
Does knowing your smartphone might be tapped change how you use it? E-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.