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September 29th, 2010

Feds Want to Crack Your Blackberry

If you’re wondering why Research In Motion (RIM), maker of the Blackberry, was loathe to cooperate with the authorities in Dubai and India when they demanded access to encrypted Blackberry calls, it’s because they knew no matter how little they cracked that door, it would eventually open wide. Need proof? Take a look at Monday’s New York Times in which we learn that the Feds want new regulations to force companies like RIM to design back doors into their offerings to allow easy wiretap access by law enforcement. It’ll be hard for RIM to say “no” to the U.S. when they’ve already said “yes” to other countries.

“Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct ‘peer to peer’ messaging like Skype – to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.”

Of course, law enforcement always wants unimpeded access to everything, so it’s not surprising they support such legislation. What’s both surprising and disturbing is that it’s the Obama administration, not some law-and-order group of Republicans, that’s going to be sponsoring this legislation next year, proving a frustrating point in a nation entrenched in a “two party” system. We can trust neither party. Both are hell bent on destroying our rights, just from different ends of the spectrum.

This may be a novel idea to some of the current crop of young progressives who have yet to learn that the Democrats are not necessarily as freedom friendly as they may seem. They support the status quo, in many ways even more than the official opposition, and they are certainly nothing if not politicians. This case is a perfect fit for their political agenda, for the Democrats are always almost desperate to prove to those in the middle that they’re a law and order party.

Needless to say, this upcoming move by the Obama crowd does have opponents, like James X. Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet policy group:

“They are really asking for the authority to redesign services that take advantage of the unique, and now pervasive, architecture of the Internet. They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services function the way that the telephone system used to function.”

The Feds want easy access to all of our Internet and wireless communications no matter how it’s encrypted – and they think the heavy lifting needs to be done by the service providers. Never mind that some encryption is between users and currently can’t be unscrambled by the providers. Under the proposals, the providers will have to redesign their software, creating a back door that law enforcement can plug into after obtaining a warrant.

Even if we play like ostriches, stick our head in the sand and pretend there’s no civil liberties issues here, there is much that’s still wrong with this. To begin with, why should companies like RIM, who’s business is based on secure communications, have to redesign their product – doing law enforcements heavy lifting for them. If law enforcement wants to crack the Blackberry, let them figure out how to hack it on their own.

It’s hard enough for developers to stay one step ahead of the black hats and keep a secure system secure without the burden of having a back door purposely being built into the system. Hackers are always breaching unintentional security exploits, like buffer overflows and the like. Don’t you think they would quickly figure out how to breach a security hole intentionally built into an application, no matter how skillfully this back door is designed?

Dollars to doughnuts, a back door built for law enforcement will be opened by the bad guys before the first warrant is issued. Credit card numbers will be stolen and bank accounts will be emptied long before this legislation produces its first law enforcement success.

President Obama must know this is a bad idea. If he was more of a statesman than a politician, he wouldn’t even be proposing such a thing. Unfortunately, statesmen are nearly as rare within the Democratic Party as they are within the ranks of the Republicans.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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