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A Call to Curtail London Rioting Focuses on 'Encrypted' Mobile Messaging Service

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, August 9 2011

A member of British Parliament representing ground zero for the riots now rocking that country on Tuesday called for the maker of the BlackBerry mobile phone to suspend its popular BlackBerry Messaging Service tonight.

David Lammy, who represents Tottenham, made his plea Tuesday morning Eastern Standard Time on television and Twitter because, he said, the service of mobile provider Research in Motion was too secure for police to intercept in time to stop any criminal activity. In practice, this might be true — but this is just the latest example of RIM being asked by a state to intervene on its behalf so it can intercept messages sent on its more-secure-than-usual service.

"Police can decrypt but by that time it's too late. That's what we saw last night," Lammy told another Twitter user earlier today.

Before that, he wrote: "Immediate action needed. LDNers cannot have another evening like last night tonight. BBM clearly helping rioters outfox Police. Suspend it."

At issue here is the way that evolutions in mobile technology have placed a communications system into the hands of London youth that was initially designed for corporate tycoons to talk business safe in the knowledge that snoops of all sorts had next to no chance of listening in. Part of BlackBerry's marketability to corporate clients, after all, is its level of security.

What was a happy coincidence of the way technology gets cheaper and cheaper — allowing kids to talk to one another through BlackBerry Messaging, a service that uses high-grade encryption to secure messages as they travel between mobile devices and BlackBerry servers — has suddenly become a threat to the British government: Kids can talk without the law listening in. This curious turn of events puts the British Home Office in a position of wanting to monitor their own citizens but possibly not having the technological means to do so, short of the cooperation of BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion — a position that India, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have all been in before.

The prevailing wisdom seems to be that once those messages arrive on RIM hardware, the company is perfectly capable of intercepting them and in some cases willing to do so — but it's unclear how, specifically, the company has assuaged previous concerns from other governments over this secure service being in the hands of average folks.

"Rim can suspend BB service and has previously done so in the UAE for a short period of time," Katrin Verclas, co-founder of Mobileactive.org, explained in an email on Tuesday. "It is also suspected of allowing access to its servers and crypto in some instances, namely in India in the name of national security - that is, allowing for a backdoor for unencryption of bb and enterprise email services."

The company has declined to disclose details of any of the deals it seems to have reached with other governments, and has said in this case only that it is working with British law enforcement.

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