Trending >

Did BlackBerry's CEO just take a swipe at Apple in the encryption debate?

john-chen Responding to recent pronouncements by various politicians and political aspirants, in combination with recent terrorist attacks in Lebanon, Paris and San Bernadino, BlackBerry CEO John Chen has penned an editorial bemoaning the “acrimonious and polarizing” rhetoric surrounding the debate around communications encryption.
Chen’s editorial, though, looks more like an opportunistic swipe at Apple than the declaration of a principled stance by BlackBerry.
In simplistic terms, this “debate” hinges on an either/or victory for advocates of privacy vs. transparency for the security establishment.
In practice, though, this has always been a false choice. What Chen is really writing about is reputation and how perception influences business decisions in the face of how people use and abuse technology in reality.

Chen: At BlackBerry, we understand, arguably more than any other large tech company, the importance of our privacy commitment to product success and brand value: privacy and security form the crux of everything we do.

Chen writes, “At BlackBerry, we understand, arguably more than any other large tech company, the importance of our privacy commitment to product success and brand value: privacy and security form the crux of everything we do. However, our privacy commitment does not extend to criminals.”
BlackBerry historically has enjoyed a reputation, or “brand value” as Chen calls it, as the device of choice among business and government users who value security.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Mexican drug lord who escaped through a tunnel under his prison toilet in July, refused to use any phone other than BlackBerry while being hunted by Drug Enforcement Agency and Mexican officials, on the basis of BlackBerry’s reputation for security.
“El Chapo” also saw value in the fact that the phones weren’t American. The mere fact that BlackBerry was a Canadian company was enough to persuade him that they were a safer way of doing business.

Chen refers to Telescope and WhatsApp, and the fact that they were both apparently recently used by terrorists, providing more ammunition for people who want communications to be transparent to authorities.

Using a BlackBerry, however, did not prevent the DEA from figuring out where “El Chapo” was.
Whether it was the BlackBerry itself that gave him away, or perhaps the use of a third-party messaging app like WhatsApp, ultimately if the authorities are really interested in finding you, they’re going to figure out how to monitor your communications.
Chen refers to Telescope and WhatsApp, and the fact that they were both apparently recently used by terrorists, providing more ammunition for people who want communications to be transparent to authorities.
Since BlackBerry’s general loss of market share in mobile handsets, followed by the revelations of Edward Snowden, BlackBerry has found itself playing catch-up in a game that it had a hand in creating, chasing market leaders like Apple and Samsung.
Earlier versions of Apple’s iOS, anything before 7, were accessible to Apple the company. Apple could, if requested by authorities, access messages sent and received on its own devices.
But from iOS 8 and onward, Tim Cook decided to remove that access, meaning that Apple can no longer access that data even if requested to do so by authorities, a decision which FBI director James Comey described on December 9 as a “business model problem”.

Apple’s real “business model problem” is not a question of the company’s unwillingness to cooperate with the authorities. Apple has proved in the past that it is willing to play along in whatever jurisdiction it sells phones in.

Comey is right about that, but not in the way he imagines.
Apple’s real “business model problem” is not a question of the company’s unwillingness to cooperate with the authorities. Apple has proved in the past that it is willing to play along in whatever jurisdiction it sells phones in.
The FBI knows very well that Cook’s decision is first and foremost a business decision, prompted by the cloud of mistrust kicked up by Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA snooping.
So this “business model problem” that Comey refers to is a problem, from the perspective of phone makers, of how to get an edge selling phones in a marketplace tainted by a lack of trust on the part of the public, a mistrust created by the American government.
If it were just a matter of selling good phones, no one would be having a discussion about “trust” or “reputation” based around security issues.
We’d merely buy a device based on its technical specs. Comey can thank the overreach of his own government for the “business model problems” faced by BlackBerry and Apple today.

Although Chen is right that technology companies bear “a dual responsibility” in the real world, at this point it looks like Apple’s more principled stance may carry the day in the mind of the consumer for whom security is important.

“There are plenty of companies today that provide secure services to their customers and still comply with court orders,” says Comey. “There are plenty of folks who make good phones who are able to unlock them in response to a court order. In fact, the makers of phones that today can’t be unlocked, a year ago they could be unlocked.”
And this jibes with the case that John Chen is making. “We reject the notion that tech companies should refuse reasonable, lawful access requests,” he writes. “Just as individual citizens bear responsibility to help thwart crime when they can safely do so, so do corporations have a responsibility to do what they can, within legal and ethical boundaries, to help law enforcement in its mission to protect us.”
Chen then goes on to write “that corporations must reject attempts by federal agencies to overstep.”
So Chen at least recognizes a corporation’s apparent right to say no to a request that it deems irresponsible, as Apple recently has.
Apple’s October 9 response to the United States District Court request “to assist in the execution of a search warrant issued by this court” reads, “Forcing Apple to extract data in this case, absent clear legal authority to do so, could threaten the trust between Apple and its customers and substantially tarnish the Apple brand. This reputational harm could have a longer term economic impact beyond the mere cost of performing the single extraction at issue.”
Again, the operational words here are “reputational harm” and “trust”. These words mean everything to a brand.
Apple is asking the court to consider its right to refuse the government’s request to alter its technology so that it once again has access to its customers data, which would be more of a “reputational” problem than a practical or moral issue.
In the U.K., David Cameron’s Conservative government is pushing forward an Investigatory Powers Bill, slated to come into effect in 2017, which will make it illegal for a company to do what Apple has recently done, which is to sell a device encrypted in such a way that the company cannot access its users’ data.
Earlier this month on a campaign stop, Donald Trump said, “We’re losing a lot of people because of the Internet. We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way. Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.”
It’s tempting to write off Trump’s “closing that Internet up” rhetoric as the same kind of uninformed, reactionary populism designed merely to get votes, like rallying the public around suspicion of Muslim women’s headwear or hostility towards media elites.
But as Cameron is showing in the U.K., real policy can be crafted to erode what citizens have come to regard as inalienable privacy rights.
Chen writes that “service providers bear a dual responsibility to protect customer privacy zealously and to cooperate with lawful requests for investigative assistance.”
“Frankly, it is surprising and unnerving that some national political leaders think that an encryption ban could even work on a technical basis,” he writes. “We, as a society, have decided that powerful computing devices that manage our identities, photographs, bank statements, and more are better to have than not.”
Although Chen is right that technology companies bear “a dual responsibility” in the real world, at this point it looks like Apple’s more principled stance may carry the day in the mind of the consumer for whom security is important.

In the end, though, it may not matter how the company behaves in particular jurisdictions or whether its phones are technically superior to the competition’s.

It’s not as though BlackBerry has no spine on these issues.
Last month, BlackBerry gave up on Pakistan on the grounds that the government wanted to monitor all BlackBerry Enterprise Service traffic “for security reasons”.
In the end, though, it may not matter how the company behaves in particular jurisdictions or whether its phones are technically superior to the competition’s.
If a perception is created in the mind of the public that to buy BlackBerry means cooperation with characters like David Cameron and Donald Trump and FBI director James Comey, then this “debate” will be won by Apple.

  •  
  •  
  •  

About The Author /

Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Access Expert Stock Picks for free

CLOSE

Get Stock Picks From The Pros

Sign up for our newsletter to get timely Canadian stock picks from expert financial analysts.