Government of India goes off the deep end with BlackBerry request

I’ve resisted too much comment about this, feeling that my specialty is really mobile development, rather than IT infrastructure and BlackBerry security, but the latest ’suggestion’from the government of India has pushed the whole BlackBerry security story from a sort of badly-managed PR problem for RIM into an absurd Orwellian/Gibsonian alternate reality.

The problem that UAE and Saudi Arabia (and now India) have had with BlackBerry email is that it’s too secure. Understandable, these are strong centralist regimes who like to regulate many aspects of their citizens’ lives. Now somewhere the press started reporting that the US Government actually has access to encrypted BlackBerry email, and other governments – such as India – started to say: “Hey, we want that too!”
There are at least 3 problems with this story:

Problem 1:

The US Government does not have the ability to spy on encrypted BlackBerry email.

First, look at this BlackBerry architecture diagram. BlackBerry is a very secure system, when used with a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). The entire content of every packet exchanged between a BlackBerry device and its BES is encrypted with a symmetric key (usually AES, sometimes Triple DES) that’s only known to the device and the BES. Each device has a separate key. Keys can be created and exchanged entirely within the corporate firewall, without ever being sent over the public internet (there’s also an exchange mechanism using PKI – a method that’s widely used and secure even outside of BlackBerry) . Both AES and TDES are secure enough that the NIST has approved them for use by the US government in sending classified information. There are no known substantive attacks to AES. There are no known backdoors. Maybe the NSA or someone has discovered a way to crack AES, but that would mean the end of pretty much all digital security everywhere, and anyway if I had actual proof of that I probably wouldn’t be in a position to write this article.

Problem 2:

National Governments can already look at the encrypted packets sent and received from BlackBerry devices in their countries

Let me emphasize this first – I don’t mean that governments can see the content of packets: as I stated above, the content is encrypted, what I mean is that there’s a tiny bit of non-encrypted information that you can get even from an encrypted packet – information about where the packet came from and where it’s going. Check out that security diagram from RIMagain. Notice that while AES/TDES encryption applies to the whole path, there’s still a point where those (fully encrypted) packets flow from the wireless service provider’s infrastructure over the internet to the corporate BES. Actually there’s an additional hop through RIM’s infrastructure, but the point is: at some point those packets are flowing on internet infrastructure within your national borders!. You can look at them, do whatever you want with them (we know China has pretty much their entire vast country behind a firewall). It doesn’t matter that they have to go outside the country to get through RIM’s servers, they’re encrypted. RIM can’t read them anymore than anyone else can. In fact arguing that sending them through RIM’s servers is a security risk would be to argue the exact opposite of the ‘too secure’ problem (up is down, black is white?).

Five Things that BlackBerry does better than iPhone

I’ll start with a confession – I’ve been using an iPhone instead of a BlackBerry for the past little while, because my company has been focused on developing some iPhone products. The iPhone is a phenomenal device, and certainly has to have RIM worried, but having used both devices now, there are definitely a lot of things that the BlackBerry does way better. I’ve picked 5 things that I really really miss about using a BlackBerry (and probably they’ll be the reasons that I go back to BlackBerry for day-to-day use soon). I think most of these are known to most people, but I’ve omitted a few things that are commonly thought of as BlackBerry’s advantages – I’ll explain why at the end of the article.

1. Push Email

Yes, iPhone does push email too, but BlackBerry does it better. You can sync an Exchange account with your iPhone and get push email, but only one. I’ve always got a minimum of 2 accounts I want to keep up to date with – currently 5 – but even with 2, I’d have to choose a preferred one (or consolidate everything through one account, which isn’t an option).

clouds
And sure you can get 3rd party solutions for iPhone that use the push notification functionality to tell you about new email – I’m using one called Mail Notifier – but it’s not the same thing. I get notified of a new email, which includes a snippet of the text, but I then have to go into the Mail app, select the account, wait for it to connect and download, and then click the email. With BlackBerry the email is already there, and I can even set the device to pop the email client up on new emails. No going through the list of accounts, remembering which one the email came from, speaking of which…

2. Multiple Email Accounts

Handled beautifully by BlackBerry. I can view the inbox for each account separately, but never do. BlackBerry lets me view all emails from all accounts in one place, and keeps track so that when I reply it comes from the right account.

There’s more! I can have separate signatures for each account (really really irritating missing feature on iPhone), and when I compose a new email to a contact, the BlackBerry usually guesses correctly which account I want to send it from – probably based on some analysis of past correspondence.

With iPhone I have to click on mail, click on the account, click on inbox. And then back out through those screens to check my next account. Just enough extra clicks to be annoying, and I can’t see all my emails from all accounts at the same time.

Email is part of BlackBerry’s DNA – it’s initial killer app was email, and the business and devices were built around that, and it shows.

3. The Keyboard

keyboards
While the iPhone’s virtual keyboard is a pretty phenomenal piece of engineering, and amazingly usable (more than I can say for BlackBerry’s attempt at the same thing – but that’s a post for another day), nothing on any mobile device has yet delivered the same instant easy usability that the physical BlackBerry keyboard has. Not much more to say than that, but I will add that I’ve noticed a change in my behavior with regards to email, and I think it’s largely because of the lack of keyboard on an iPhone:

The iPhone keyboard, even being slightly more difficult to use than BlackBerry’s real keyboard, has put enough of a barrier in place (at least in my head) that I reply to a lot less email, and so get a lot less done away from the desktop. Meaning my response time has gone down, and there’s always more email waiting for me to reply to when I do get to a desktop.

4. The notification light

Yes, this thing:

bbled

Amazingly simple, but I really miss it. I’m used to glancing down at my device to see if anything new had come in – or looking at it lying on a table. iPhone doesn’t have an LED indicator for new email, so I can’t do that. Again, email is part of the core DNA of BlackBerry, all the way down through the hardware, and this shows it.

5. Total integration – email, calendar, contacts, notes, tasks

This is probably a bunch of things, but I’ll put them all together here. BlackBerry just delivers a better experience when going between all the above applications. It syncs them more readily, makes it easier to link calendar entries to notes to tasks to contacts, etc. It’s difficult to quantify but the overall experience is just smoother – obviously this is based on years of development and user feedback from RIM. It’s core to the BlackBerry experience and they still do it better than iPhone (even with it’s super slick UI)

Runners Up

BlackBerry Messenger

Really great, and hugely popular, but I honestly never used it enough for it to make my personal top 5

Camera

The camera on my Curve 8900 blew away the iPhone (still does) but there are better mobile cameras out there than the best that BlackBerry or iPhone offer

Things I specifically left out

Security

Yes, BlackBerry email (within a corporate environment) is very very secure. But for my use, I don’t really care. Most of my email is GMail based anyway, and so I’m always sending stuff to other people via plain unencrypted protocols. If I really care about security I send an encrypted attachment or use something other than email to do it.

Battery Life

I’ve gotten so used to plugging my devices in every night that this hasn’t been an issue with any mobile device (even though I use my iPhone for playing music as well as email/phone/etc). As long as the battery lasts the day, I’m happy.

Expandable memory

True, BlackBerry does support micro SD cards, but the support is hobbled by two things: 1. You can’t use the SD cards for app storage, and 2. for most devices at least, you have to remove the battery to remove the SD card – no hot-swapping