With BlackBerry reportedly hacked, is anything secure?

The gold standard of secure mobile messaging, BlackBerry, may have been compromised

Is anything secure anymore? The National Security Agency (NSA) leaks have produced a number of side effects. What we assumed was a safe form of communications is perhaps not so secure after all. The gold standard of secure mobile messaging, BlackBerry, may have been compromised.

Apparently, the NSA and Britain's spy agency GCHQ (and/or other governments/agencies) were able to hack into the BlackBerry streams of government officials attending a G20 summit in London. If true, this raises a bigger question: Is any encrypted communication safe anymore given the massive amount of brute-force computing power that can be applied to code-breaking and pattern recognition?

Low-cost GPUs (graphical processer units) that are being configured into massively parallel systems are far better at code-breaking than traditional CPUs. When the encryption algorithms were originally created, people reported it would take tens or hundreds of years in brute-force computing power to break them. But they never envisioned the relatively cheap, massively parallel systems available today using hundreds or thousands of NVidia or AMD GPU cores. These parallel processing machines are really effective at finding patterns and hence decrypting data streams. Indeed, some "researchers" have demonstrated ways of breaking the security of wireless transmissions like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc.

Do we need to re-evaluate what secure mobile messaging is all about? For years, Research In Motion has said its BlackBerry system was secure. There's no reason to doubt that RIM is being honest when it confirms that there is no back door designed into its systems to allow decoding of user data streams. But that does not mean it can't be done by other means, perhaps by monitoring the data and then deciphering it, and not necessarily in real time. (Recording in real time than processing the data in massive supercomputing systems is common practice.) What may have taken tens or hundreds of years to brute-force when algorithms were designed may no longer be an accurate estimate for those players able to devote enough resources to their defeat. And the cost and availability of those resources is dropping rapidly.

So should organizations, even ones that believe they are highly secure (and perhaps even FIPS-compliant), assume they are safe? Should stand-alone or PC-installed encrypted storage devices be assumed unbreakable? Should highly encrypted mobile messaging be assumed unreadable by prying eyes? They're safe from most hacking, probably. From all hacking and various government agencies, U.S. and otherwise, not necessarily. Don't forget, Enigma, the most ambitious and secure "unbreakable" system of its day, was defeated.

The NSA disclosures should raise red flags. We are entering a new era of security where decryption of secure systems is something that can be accomplished on multiple levels and with relatively easily available technology. Mobile users with highly sensitive data should be concerned, both with mobile data transfers and also data at rest that may be stolen (e.g., while laptops remain in a hotel room and the owner goes out). There is no longer an absolute guarantee of confidentiality. This is not paranoia. Moore's Law's exponential expansion applies as well to the brute-force hacking of encryption as it does to other computing tasks.

There will be a continuous struggle to find more secure encryption algorithms, or use increasingly longer bit-lengths to enhance security and make it more difficult to defeat. But this may also require more onboard resources to do the encryption/decryption and raise the cost of devices. Ultimately security isn't free.

Bottom line: Complacency is the enemy. All organizations must be vigilant and review what level of data encryption and levels of security they employ, especially if the technologies are more than one or two years old and the companies are in highly regulated and/or sensitive industries. Only the most current security-enabled products should be utilized, but that may not be enough to prevent a data breech by those groups/agencies with enough resources to apply to the task.

Jack Gold is the founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, an information technology analyst firm based in Northborough, Mass.

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags privacyBlackberryAMDNational Security AgencyNVGCHQ

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jack Gold

Computerworld (US)
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Bitdefender 2019

This Holiday Season, protect yourself and your loved ones with the best. Buy now for Holiday Savings!

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?