BlackBerry: Security on Multiple Platforms
01.19.2015 by Andrew M. Seybold
Why then did the world turn its back on BlackBerry? The simple reason was the pizazz of the iPhone and then Android smartphones. Unfortunately, when the BlackBerry lost its luster, we lost our ability to send and receive secure emails and text messages.
The United States and the world are missing something when it comes to cyber security. All you have to ask is, “How many BlackBerry sites or users have been hacked?” The answer is none, at least none I know of, have been reported within the past year or more. This is because for years and years, BlackBerry has considered data security one of its most important features. After the Sony hack, Sony executives and staff dusted off their old BlackBerries and got back onto email without fear of being hacked.
Why then did the world turn its back on BlackBerry? The simple reason was the pizazz of the iPhone and then Android smartphones. Unfortunately, when the BlackBerry lost its luster, we lost our ability to send and receive secure emails and text messages. There is more to BlackBerry Messenger, including BlackBerry Messenger Meetings, but for this Commentary I want to focus on security issues, not necessarily on the functionality of today’s offerings. However a good friend of mine did a great job of describing BBM in his linked in article.
As always, email on a BlackBerry is encrypted end-to-end and more security and management functions continue to be added. Two recent acquisitions provide BlackBerry with a way to create a virtual second SIM to separate work from personal messages. Further, this second SIM does not have to be on the same network as your corporate SIM, and it will still work. Just prior to the acquisition of Movirtu, BlackBerry also acquired Secusmart, a company that specializes in securing high-profile phones including voice and data encryption. So BlackBerry continues to lead the wireless industry in its ability to secure voice, data, email, and text. From day one, Research In Motion (RIM), the company that became BlackBerry, considered end-to-end encryption in its product offerings as a must-have for its products.
A Little History
I go back a very long way with BlackBerry. I carried a RIM two-way pager on the RAM Mobile Data network and worked with RIM, RAM Mobile Data, and BellSouth as a consultant. However, I began my wireless email quest working with RadioMail, the world’s first wireless email company. After my experiences with RadioMail in the early 1990s and having to wrestle with two different email boxes, one on my desktop and one on my RadioMail device, I finally wrote an article in the mid 1990s called, “Wireless Email, the Two Mail Box Problem.” In that article I discussed the issue we had with RadioMail, which was way ahead of its time but still required its users to have one desktop email address and another email address for RadioMail. This got confusing since if I forwarded my Outlook mail to my RadioMail, and then answered it, the recipient would receive the response from Andy@radiomail.com, not from Andy@outlook.com.
If the recipient responded to the email it would come to my RadioMail device. If I had it turned off or sitting in my office, I would not know it was there until the next time I turned on my HP 95LX and Ericsson modem. I found this to be a real issue with time sensitive emails such as emails sent to me by my clients. So I wrote the article to identify the issues. About a year later, I received a call from one of the co-founders of BlackBerry telling me I needed to come to Waterloo, Canada and see how they had solved my problem.
We arranged for a time for me to visit and I flew to Canada and met Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, whom I already knew from my previous consulting work. I was shown a device and was told that the company they hired to help name it recommended “BlackBerry” because while it resembled their two-way pager I already wore on my belt, the case had dimples on it that they said resembled a blackberry. I was not thrilled with the name but what they showed me next made me forget all about the name!
Mike had set his Outlook email desktop to send out a ping each time he received an email and he fed the ping over the PA system in the building. As we walked around talking, each time the PA system pinged he showed me his BlackBerry with a new message on the screen for me to read. I sat down at my laptop, logged onto my Outlook account, and sent him an email. Ping! My email was on his BlackBerry, he responded, and his answer quickly appeared in my Outlook inbox. I could hardly believe my eyes! It was from his Outlook email address, NOT a different wireless device email address!
I was hooked. A couple of days later when I left Waterloo I had my own BlackBerry set up on my own email account, and a consulting contract. I have been wearing a BlackBerry on my belt ever since and have heard, many times, of the upcoming demise of BlackBerry. Guess what? It is still alive and kicking and still has the most secure email and messaging platform available today! I have also heard and read that RIM was to be purchased by Motorola, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, and a number of others, but it is still BlackBerry and it is still the best when it comes to end-to-end encryption.
Not only is BlackBerry’s security solution available on BlackBerry devices, it is now also available on Android, Apple, and Windows mobile devices. It is still secure and BlackBerry Messenger is as secure. I have to wonder how long it will take companies and government agencies that continue to be hacked to return to the security provided by BlackBerry. BlackBerry cannot provide protection to their websites or databases or any databases they have entrusted to the cloud, but it CAN secure their email and messaging.
I could write a book about the work RIM did to promote its BlackBerry platform but others have already done so. However, one thing that sticks in my mind is when RIM decided to develop a GSM phone that included the BlackBerry email client and built it to work in Europe where GSM was king. This was the first combined cell phone and BlackBerry email product but there were problems and it did not work on the GSM systems. Instead of simply giving up, RIM sent a group of engineers to Europe to work with the network operators, Ericsson, Nokia, and others. They got the system to work and it soon became a must have in Europe. Again, it was a secure email system. I never say “totally” secure because there is no such thing. However, to my knowledge, BlackBerry’s system has never been compromised.
Then BlackBerry took off, becoming the email standard in the wireless industry and was used my many governments, companies, and individuals. BlackBerry devices were carried by everyone who needed secure communications. Microsoft, Qualcomm, Intel, the U.S. Government, and others all recognized that the BlackBerry email solution was secure and easy to use.
Unfortunately, BlackBerry was totally blindsided by the introduction of the Apple iPhone only eight short years ago. The buzz surrounding this phone was incredible as we all know, and Apple leapt way ahead in the smartphone battle. Time after time I received calls from IT managers facing the issue of the C level execs in their company running out and buying an iPhone and then insisting the IT department integrate it into their corporate email and applications. For a while, BlackBerry prevailed, but the folks in Waterloo did not react well to the iPhone nor Android and the primary reason for choosing BlackBerry was lost in the noise because the devices did not have the cool features of iPhone and Android devices.
Back to the Present
Like backing up desktop computers before the hard drive failed, which everyone knew they should do but no one ever did, and like installing malware protection on PCs and even Apples, which more people did, the perceived need for end-to-end secure email and messaging died because there had been no real breaches. Most people wanted iPhone and Android devices because they were cool and had a lot of features and functionality.
Today we live in a very different world. Major companies, governments, power plants, and secure cloud servers are being hacked on a daily basis. Some of the hacks are for the old reason, a young computer geek wants to see how good he or she is, hacks some company, but does no damage. Some hacks are to obtain user data in the form of credit cards and other personal information, and some hacks are by others in foreign countries who are after much more than simply credit card numbers. Among today’s smartphones, the BlackBerry is still the most secure, followed by the iPhone. I am not 100% sure about Windows-based phones, but I do know the worst operating system for security breaches are Android based.
There are many reasons Android phones are more prone to malware, hackers, and others trying to gain access. One of the main reasons is that unlike Apple and BlackBerry, Google does not screen applications and time and time again, apps that are infected show up and are then downloaded. Yet Android devices seem to be favored by the U.S. Government today, and the FBI is busy building what it hopes will be hack-proof Android devices.
Yet quietly, perhaps too quietly, BlackBerry has been extending its security solutions to these other platforms. It is still ahead of everyone else from what I see, and it might make sense for some of the companies selling smartphones to pay more attention to what BlackBerry has to offer in the way of security. One of BlackBerry’s resent acquisitions, Movirtu, might be an ideal tool for IT folks who are having a difficult time with the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) wave that is changing wireless within corporations and giving IT managers headaches. By being able to create a new, second virtual SIM, the phone can be split into two phones, a work phone and a personal phone, keeping the emails separate and providing yet another level of security.
A few days ago when I saw that Samsung was making an offer for BlackBerry, reported to be $7.5 billion but quickly denied by both BlackBerry and Samsung, I thought of two things. First, it would be a real coup for Samsung. BlackBerry has many patents, some of which I helped defend in court over the years, and a great deal of expertise in securing devices and applications. Samsung needs to push back a bit at Google regarding Android. Next up is the fact that BlackBerry’s QNX operating system will be in new Ford Vehicles instead of Windows and is already reportedly in up to 50 million vehicles. If Samsung bought BlackBerry and truly recognized its potential, not simply its patents, it could increase its market share in the world smartphone business simply by promoting security and end-to-end encryption.
The second thought I had was that I would rather see BlackBerry stay viable as a company but work with all of the other phone vendors to better protect all of our emails, messaging, and even voice communications. I feel as though the more security issues we face both on the Internet and in our wireless world, the more valuable BlackBerry’s existing products and expertise become. I am surprised that no phone vendor or Google, for that matter, has gobbled BlackBerry up, but I am glad. I have worn a BlackBerry on my belt since 1998 and I want to continue to do so. My new Passport is a great product that has a lot of capabilities, about which I am still learning.
Andrew M. Seybold