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

By , IDG News Service |  Government

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."

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