Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Risk

Scotland Yard Read Encrypted BlackBerry Messages During Riots

British police officials said they used confiscated BlackBerry smartphones to "break into" encrypted communications.

Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, LocalPain
Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, Local Pain
(click image for larger view and for full slideshow)
What's the easiest way to access an encrypted smartphone communications network? Have a smartphone that can listen in.

At least, that was one tactic employed by police in London as they sought better intelligence on the outbreak of riots across England. So said Tim Godwin, acting police commissioner for the Metropolitan--the country's largest police force, which is more commonly known as Scotland Yard--on Tuesday, as he appeared before the U.K. Parliament's Home Affairs Committee. The committee, which oversees many of the country's police forces, is investigating the success or failure of police tactics used during the riots.

According to Godwin, as riots broke out in 22 of London's 32 boroughs last Monday and threatened to overwhelm police officers, he made the decision to begin eavesdropping and acting on encrypted BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) communications. Godwin said that by using BlackBerry smartphones seized by police, detectives were able to "break into" BBM and gain "live time monitoring," according to the Guardian. As a result, police officers were able to secure locations before rioting broke out, as well as proactively shut down stores and businesses in areas that faced looting. Police were also monitoring Twitter and Facebook, and Godwin's testimony suggested that police may have used confiscated BlackBerry smartphones to gain access to private Twitter feeds.

In Britain, multiple politicians had called for a curfew on BBM--widely used by the rioters, who were largely young and male--as well as social networks, to help quell the unrest. (As some privacy advocates have noted, such tactics echo strategies recently employed by autocratic rulers in such countries as Egypt and Libya, as they clung to power in the face of mass riots.) But Godwin confirmed that the police considered that tactic. "We did consider seeking the legal authority to switch it off. The legality is questionable, very questionable," he said, according to the Guardian.

Interestingly, BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion had released a statement in which it offered to assist investigators, in accordance with U.K. laws. Numerous security experts took that to mean that any police requests for BBM communications would, as usual, require a warrant.

Using a seized device to surreptitiously access BlackBerry Messenger communications, however, is gray territory. Furthermore, by detailing the difficulties police faced in amassing intelligence about planned rioting and looting, Godwin may not only be seeking exculpation for that intelligence gathering, but also laying the groundwork for a formal police request for new laws, giving them explicit power to eavesdrop on encrypted communications during times of unrest.

According to the Guardian, Godwin told the committee that police were not "at this moment of time" seeking the ability to deactivate social networks or eavesdrop on encrypted smartphone communications channels, during times of civil unrest. But news reports suggest that police are already working with the domestic intelligence service, MI5, as well as the country's electronic signals intelligence center, the Government Communications Headquarters, to decrypt BBM communications in the hunt for people who organized riots and looting.

Beyond using confiscated BlackBerry smartphones, police monitored riot-related and looting-related public messages sent via Twitter and Facebook, which resulted in multiple arrests.

But some of the resulting sentences have been criticized as being disproportionate. Notably, on Tuesday, two men were sentenced to four years in prison on charges of inciting a riot via Facebook. One 20-year-old man created a Facebook event page for "Smash Down in Northwich Town," and set the McDonald's in his town center as a meeting point. But he was the sole attendee and was arrested by waiting police. In the other case, a 22-year-old man created a Facebook page called "Let's Have a Riot in Latchford," but removed it the next day--after 300 people had viewed it--and published an apology on Facebook.

In handing down the stiff sentences, the judge said they were meant to serve as a deterrent.

At a full-day virtual event, InformationWeek and Dark Reading editors will talk with security experts about the causes and mistakes that lead to security breaches, both from the technology perspective and from the people perspective. It happens Aug. 25. Register now.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Oldest First  |  Newest First  |  Threaded View
Mobile Banking Malware Up 50% in First Half of 2019
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  1/17/2020
Exploits Released for As-Yet Unpatched Critical Citrix Flaw
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  1/13/2020
Microsoft to Officially End Support for Windows 7, Server 2008
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  1/13/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win a Starbucks Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: This comment is waiting for review by our moderators.
Current Issue
The Year in Security: 2019
This Tech Digest provides a wrap up and overview of the year's top cybersecurity news stories. It was a year of new twists on old threats, with fears of another WannaCry-type worm and of a possible botnet army of Wi-Fi routers. But 2019 also underscored the risk of firmware and trusted security tools harboring dangerous holes that cybercriminals and nation-state hackers could readily abuse. Read more.
Flash Poll
[Just Released] How Enterprises are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
[Just Released] How Enterprises are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
Organizations have invested in a sweeping array of security technologies to address challenges associated with the growing number of cybersecurity attacks. However, the complexity involved in managing these technologies is emerging as a major problem. Read this report to find out what your peers biggest security challenges are and the technologies they are using to address them.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-7227
PUBLISHED: 2020-01-18
Westermo MRD-315 1.7.3 and 1.7.4 devices have an information disclosure vulnerability that allows an authenticated remote attacker to retrieve the source code of different functions of the web application via requests that lack certain mandatory parameters. This affects ifaces-diag.asp, system.asp, ...
CVE-2019-15625
PUBLISHED: 2020-01-18
A memory usage vulnerability exists in Trend Micro Password Manager 3.8 that could allow an attacker with access and permissions to the victim's memory processes to extract sensitive information.
CVE-2019-19696
PUBLISHED: 2020-01-18
A RootCA vulnerability found in Trend Micro Password Manager for Windows and macOS exists where the localhost.key of RootCA.crt might be improperly accessed by an unauthorized party and could be used to create malicious self-signed SSL certificates, allowing an attacker to misdirect a user to phishi...
CVE-2019-19697
PUBLISHED: 2020-01-18
An arbitrary code execution vulnerability exists in the Trend Micro Security 2019 (v15) consumer family of products which could allow an attacker to gain elevated privileges and tamper with protected services by disabling or otherwise preventing them to start. An attacker must already have administr...
CVE-2019-20357
PUBLISHED: 2020-01-18
A Persistent Arbitrary Code Execution vulnerability exists in the Trend Micro Security 2020 (v160 and 2019 (v15) consumer familiy of products which could potentially allow an attacker the ability to create a malicious program to escalate privileges and attain persistence on a vulnerable system.