Your accountant uncle who still wears his phone in a holster on his hip loves BlackBerry Messenger. And so, apparently, does one of the world’s most notorious drug kingpins.
Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán was recently recaptured after escaping from prison last year, and in a bizarre twist, it emerged that actor Sean Penn met with the fugitive when he was on the run, and that BlackBerry Messenger played a pivotal role in their communications.
BlackBerry encrypts data such as emails and its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) messages sent between a user’s phone and public networks, ensuring greater privacy for users. but sometimes making life harder for police and intelligence agencies. The company has long touted that its products offer more security than those of rivals such as Apple.
BlackBerry declined to comment for this story.
Ironically, BlackBerry’s products are frequently used by government, military and security organizations for the same reasons. The company has more than 70 government certifications and approvals – more than any other mobile vendor – and 16 of the world’s G20 governments use BlackBerry. The Department of Defense just last summer gave its stamp of approval for operating its super-secure Public Key Infrastructure on BlackBerry’s operating system and smartphones.
Robert Bigman, former chief information security officer at the Central Intelligence Agency who retired in 2012, told NBC News in an email that many U.S. government organizations, including the CIA and FBI, still rely on BlackBerry for high-end encryption of email and messages.
“One of the benefits of BBM is that each message is separately encrypted with a unique key,” Bigman said in an email. “Unlike BlackBerry’s earlier products, you do not need a BlackBerry Enterprise Server running to install and use the product on the various devices.”
“Another nice feature that I'm sure El Chapo enjoyed is message registration privacy,” the former CIA official said. “You do not need to provide or exchange phone numbers and even names when you register for the service.
Several governments around the world (Pakistan, India, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia to name a few) have banned BlackBerry’s enterprise service and its Internet and messaging services “for security reasons.” Prime Minister David Cameron even considered banning BBM in the UK during the 2011 riots.
As for El Chapo, this is his second escape from prison and subsequent capture. The first escape led to him being caught in 2014. And while BBM appears to be among his preferred methods of communication, it was also what may have led to his arrest the first time he was caught. Authorities honed in on the BlackBerry of one of his associates and subsequently found their way to Guzmán, who surrendered.