American and British eavesdropping spy agencies have developed extensive abilities to spy on smartphone communications, including the capacity to intercept BlackBerry e-mails and telephone conversations, according to a new report in the weekly Der Spiegel.
The two signals-intelligence agencies spent years trying to hack BlackBerry phones, the Canadian-made devices which are famous for their tighter security features, Der Spiegel says, citing internal documents where analysts remarked “Champagne!” as they congratulated themselves after one key breakthrough in March 2010.
The German magazine article is based on internal documents of the U.S. National Security Agency and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, culled from the thousands leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Waterloo-based BlackBerry Ltd. has long maintained that its phones are markedly different from Apple or Android-based devices because the data can be encrypted and processed on the company’s own servers and network.
The documents show that, as early as 2009, the American agency has been able to read messages sent on BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS), the public and less secure form of the company’s e-mail delivery system.
However, the NSA is now able to intercept messages sent on BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), the firm’s more advanced, private network.
One of the documents seen by Der Spiegel was a set of GCHQ presentation notes titled “Your target is using a BlackBerry? Now what?"
It says intercepting BES messages demands a “sustained” effort by the NSA’s elite Tailored Access Operation.
(The TAO is a highly secret NSA unit that “specializes in surreptitiously installing spyware and tracking devices on targeted computers and mobile-phone networks” and that has played a role in the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the Washington Post reported previously.)
The document consulted by Der Spiegel features an e-mail from a Mexican government agency which had been sent using BlackBerry encryption technology but was intercepted and decoded nonetheless by the NSA.
The headline above the presentation of the Mexican e-mail says it came from “Post Processed BES collection.”
The NSA has a special “BlackBerry Working Group” to target the Canadian smartphone, even though the agency notes in documents that the device is more likely used by corporate or government clients than terrorists.
One document cited by Der Spiegel was an NSA assessment “noting that Nokia devices were long favored in extremist forums, with Apple following in third place and BlackBerry ranking a distant ninth.”
The story by Der Spiegel follows revelations earlier this summer that GCHQ operatives spied on visiting diplomats when the U.K. hosted two G20 summit meetings in London in 2009, intercepting some of their BlackBerry communications.
An article last June in the Guardian, which was also based on documents provided by Mr. Snowden, showcased a GCHQ document which said: “What are our recent successes? BlackBerry at G20. Delivered messages to analysts during the G20 in near real-time. Provided timely information to UK ministers.”
The speculation at the time was that the hacking involved older BlackBerry models. The company issued a statement in June saying that “while we cannot comment on media reports regarding alleged government surveillance of telecommunications traffic, we remain confident in the superiority of BlackBerry's mobile security platform.”
Asked to comment on the latest revelations, BlackBerry made similar remarks but added a denial, specifying that it had not co-operated with any authorities in providing a covert access to its services.
“Our public statements and principles have long underscored that there is no 'back door' pipeline to our platform,” the company said in an statement issued Monday morning.
Der Spiegel also reported on NSA hacking of other smartphones, such as iPhones and Android-based mobile systems, along with the computers on which their users synchronize their mobile devices.
The agency is thus able to collect text messages (including their drafts), lists of contacts, call logs, geolocation data and photos snapped by users, the magazine said.
The NSA documents seen by Der Spiegel included iPhone snapshots intercepted by the NSA. One showed a former senior foreign official relaxing on his couch in front of a TV. Another was a picture of the son of a former defence secretary with his arm around a young woman. Another showed an armed man in the mountains of Afghanistan.