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BlackBerry Chief: Privacy Commitment Does Not Extend to Criminals

Canadian smartphone maker BlackBerry is determined to help law enforcement and government agencies in their investigations even when that means breaking its commitment to privacy, John Chen, the company’s CEO says.

“Our privacy commitment does not extend to criminals,” Chen noted in a blog post on Thursday, while slapping Apple for refusing to help authorities earlier this year. He notes that the company refused the lawful access request in an investigation of a known drug dealer, claiming that the move would damage its brand.

According to Chen, “we are indeed in a dark place when companies put their reputations above the greater good.”

Chen referred to the encryption debate that returned to the headlines recently, following reports that terrorists have been using apps WhatsApp and Telegram to communicate, because they offer secure messaging capabilities. Law enforcement agencies want backdoors in such services to gain fast access to encrypted data when needed, while privacy activists and encryption specialists explain that such a move would make all communication less secure.

Without help from tech companies, authorities looking to stop terrorists appear helpless when facing the encryption tools available today. “These guys are communicating via these encrypted apps, right, the commercial encryption, which is very difficult, if not impossible, for governments to break,” former deputy CIA director Michael Morell told the CBS program "Face the Nation" last month.

“We reject the notion that tech companies should refuse reasonable, lawful access requests. 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,” BlackBerry’s CEO said.

However, BlackBerry will continue to reject attempts by federal agencies to overstep and remains strong to its commitment to refuse government access to its servers. The company has refused to include backdoors into its devices and software, and even decided to completely end all of its operations in Pakistan after clashing with the local government over user privacy.

Chen notes that the company will continue to support encryption and even says that more security controls are needed, based on the hacking epidemic over the past couple years. He disagrees with “some national political leaders” who think that an encryption ban could work on a technical basis, suggesting that criminals might actually build their own encryption tools should the technology be banned.

“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. Users can install applications with encryption that precludes lawful access. If encryption services were banned, criminals would simply write their own encryption apps, resulting in a world where they have better encryption tools than the citizen populace, and our personal privacy would be the only casualty of this debate,” Chen said.

One of the manners in which service providers can strike the proper balance is the one adopted by Telegram, which offers two separate services, namely private point-to-point messaging and public group messaging (called channels). This allowed it to shut down criminal channels without affecting the point-to-point messaging service, Chen notes.

The BlackBerry Chief also notes that companies should put in place a public policy that supports law enforcement without impeding personal privacy, while adding that pointing fingers is counterproductive. “Technology, over the course of human existence, can be both used and abused. We all have a right to privacy as well as public protection. We must balance these, and the world’s tech leaders must help consumers and governments alike make informed decisions,” he concluded.

Earlier this month, BlackBerry announced that it will cease offering its services in Pakistan on Dec. 30, after refusing the government’s demand for a backdoor into its encrypted communication service.

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