BlackBerry Public Safety Operations Team intercepts data, including BBM Messages, claims investigation

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According to a CBC News investigation, a specialized BlackBerry unit – Public Safety Operations team – has for years helped intercept user data, including BBM messages, to help in hundreds of police investigations in dozens of countries.

But unlike many other technology companies, which regularly publish transparency reports, it is not clear how many requests BlackBerry receives each year, nor the number of requests it has fulfilled.

One document reveals how the company handles requests for information and co-operates with foreign law enforcement and government agencies, in stark contrast with many other tech companies.

“We were helping law enforcement kick ass,” said one of a number of sources who told CBC News that the company is swamped by requests that come directly from police in dozens of countries.

“Narco trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, crime against children, knowing you are stopping those things … how do you not love doing something like that?” said the insider.

BlackBerry Public Safety Operations Team intercepts data, including BBM Messages, claims investigation

In response to questions from CBC News, a BlackBerry spokesperson said it “will not address the questions given the extremely sensitive nature of this process.”

The company also provided a statement that said,

“BlackBerry’s guiding principle has been to do what is right within legal and ethical boundaries when called upon to provide aid in the apprehension of criminals, or preventing government abuse of invading citizen’s privacy. We have long been clear in our stance that tech companies, as good corporate citizens, should comply with reasonable lawful access requests.”

The Public Safety Operations team at BlackBerry’s headquarters has streamlined a process to deal with what insiders characterize as a flood of requests from police. Lawyers review warrants and judicial authorizations before giving data analysts a green light to intercept and decrypt messages.

The company has developed an International Cover Letter (ICL) for police and government agencies to submit alongside a warrant.

CBC News obtained a version of the cover letter which includes checkboxes for “emergency/exigent/routine” requests, to help BlackBerry prioritize life-threatening situations over routine investigations.

It offers a menu of three categories of information BlackBerry can provide:

  • Device, account, and subscriber data (including PIN, IMEI, SIM, BlackBerry ID, name, address, payment, and purchase information).
  • Message transaction logs (times and dates of BBM and PIN message exchanges, current BBM contact list).
  • “Other.”

Multiple law enforcement and company sources tell CBC that the “Other” section is where police detail requests to intercept and descramble user communications, including the consumer versions of its once popular BBM and Pin-to-Pin messaging services.

The cover letter demands police sign a confirmation that their request is legal in their home country and affirm that it is “made in connection with the enforcement, investigation, or prosecution of violations of publicly promulgated criminal laws … and not the control, suppression, or punishment of peaceful expression of political or religious opinion.”

You can read more detailed information on the investigation here.
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