Report: UK and US spies have cracked BlackBerry's BES encryption

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden indicate that the NSA can read certain targets' BES communications

The U.S. National Security Agency is able to read messages sent via a corporate BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), according to a report by German news magazine Der Spiegel. The purpose of this spying is economic or political, and not to counter terrorism, the magazine hints.

The report, published in English on Monday, cites internal documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Governments have long demanded that BlackBerry provide access to encrypted messages carried by its email and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) services, to allow them to monitor for terrorist activity.

BlackBerry has complied in the case of its consumer-grade BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS), notably providing the Indian government with access to consumer messages. Indeed, Der Spiegel cited NSA documents claiming that since 2009, analysts have been able to see and read text messages sent from BlackBerrys, and to collect and process BIS mails.

However, the company has always maintained that it cannot provide access to messages sent through its offering for corporate customers, BES, saying the encryption keys are known only to the company operating the BES.

However, among the documents leaked by Snowden are some that indicate the NSA, and its U.K. counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), can access text messages and emails sent between BES users, Der Spiegel said.

The two agencies have been targeting messages sent via BlackBerry's platform since before May 2009, when they ran into temporary difficulties that U.K. analysts later traced to a change in BlackBerry's messaging protocol following its acquisition of a smaller company. By March 2010, they were once again able to access the information, Der Spiegel said, citing GCHQ documents marked "UK Secret."

The leaked documents seen by Der Spiegel contain no indications of large-scale spying on smartphone users, but "If the intelligence service defines a smartphone as a target, it will find a way to gain access to its information," the magazine reported.

Der Spiegel said that to acquire BES data involves a sustained effort on the part of the NSA's Office of Tailored Access Operations, a specialized hacking team based in Forte Meade, Maryland.

An NSA presentation entitled "Your target is using a BlackBerry? Now what?" seen by the magazine shows what can be achieved. It contained an image of a Mexican government email, the plain text of which appears in a slide under the title "Post Processed BES collection."

Such cases raise questions for other states. As the magazine noted, the German federal government recently awarded a contract to BlackBerry for secure communications between federal agencies.

Ironically, though, other documents show the NSA is concerned about the effects on national security of BlackBerry's declining popularity among U.S. government employees. Between August 2009 and May 2012, the "only certified government smartphone" saw its share of the U.S. government smartphone market fall from 77 percent to 50 percent, the documents said.

The Mexican email, and the agency's concern for the security of government communications, are just some of the indications that the NSA's focus on BlackBerry may not just be about the war on terrorism.

While BlackBerry devices are common in government and in corporate management, they are only the ninth-most-popular among users of extremist online forums, according to leaked NSA documents seen by Der Spiegel. The most popular phones in such circles are Nokia devices, with Apple iPhones in third place.

Der Spiegel also said that the NSA has in the past been able to obtain data from targets' Apple iPhones, although the methods detailed are unlikely to scare most users. The allegations concerned only iOS versions 3 and 4, and Der Spiegel said data was obtained principally by hacking a target's computer and downloading the backup copy of data such as photos and contacts synchronized with the iPhone. At one time this also allowed the NSA to obtain a log of locations visited by the iPhone in the seven days preceding the last data synchronization, but Apple ceased storing this log as of iOS version 4.3.3, Der Spiegel noted.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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Tags governmentBlackberryAppleU.S. National Security Agency

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Peter Sayer

Peter Sayer

IDG News Service
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