TechTalk: BBM and data encryption

TechTalk: BBM and data encryption

Last week popular messaging services BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and WhatsApp got the media attention in India when the  spot fixing controversy erupted.

Reports say that the accused in the case used these services in their alleged interaction with the bookies.

A few years ago, the Government of India and Research In Motion Limited (RIM), the Canadian company that makes BlackBerry smartphones, were at loggerheads regarding the encryption of user data by the company. The government said that the service could be misused by terrorists and other antisocial elements.

This week we will revisit that controversy and see what is unique about BB service. We will also look at the future of the company.

What is so unique about BB?

RIM has been the only smartphone maker who encrypts the data of its customers using its servers. At least in theory, the data sent form Blackberry devices were virtually undecodable by anyone. The BlackBerry Enterprise Servers had such a reputation that several big corporate houses and individuals opted for BB handsets. Other major phone manufacturers like Samsung, Nokia and even Apple just sold their devices and left the data management to telecom operators like Airtel, Vodafone and Idea.

From 2008 the Central government has been trying to make the company comply to Indian security regulations. The message going through BB’s Canada server gets encrypted and, therefore, cannot be accessed by intelligence agencies in India.

Till 2010 RIM had maintained that the security architecture for its enterprise customers is based on a symmetric key system and that the customers create their own key and only they possess the copy of the encryption.

In the same year, under tremendous pressure from the government, RIM agreed to share data related to the IP address of the Blackberry Enterprise Server, Personal Identification Number (PIN) and the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) of the Blackberry device which the security agencies want to check.

This is what enables the security agencies to determine the location of the Blackberry server and get the decrypted message today.

Future of BB

BlackBerry, like Nokia, may be called an endangered smartphone maker. The spread of Android and iOS devices get it side-lined. But the one unique feature that attracts the users to the company’s products has been its encrypted messaging that remains so in most countries.

And to use that feature one needs to buy the company’s hardware. Even that is about to change!

RIM has now announced that it will release stand alone BBM apps for Android and iOS platforms, provided there is no objection from app stores of both operating systems. (Only for smartphones and will not work on tablets.)

Now, will that be the final nail on the beleaguered company’s coffin or will it increase its popularity?

At the moment the company has over 60 million users. Over 51 million are daily users and they exchange 10 billion messages between them in a day! Half of those messages are opened and read in 20 seconds of receiving them.

(As far as user base is concerned Facebook as 1.1 billion users and Skype has 280 million.)

Will rolling out the service to competing platforms help the company? Sure, the service will have more users. But will it compel the potential user to think about buying a BlackBerry smartphone? Let’s wait and see.

Quote of the Week:

“For BlackBerry, messaging and collaboration are inseparable from the mobile experience, and the time is definitely right for BBM to become a multi-platform mobile service. BBM has always been one of the most engaging services for BlackBerry customers, enabling them to easily connect while maintaining a valued level of personal privacy. We’re excited to offer iOS and Android users the possibility to join the BBM community.”

–Andrew Bocking, Executive Vice President, BlackBerry

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