If you are like many, when you saw this headline you likely were surprised BlackBerry was still around. As BlackBerry phones left the market, the company fell out of sight. However, behind the scenes it has been moving into industries like automotive. Also, it remains the leading vendor providing mobile security to our politicians, military personnel and major corporations.
As we move into an era when our smartphones become our key to everything, and when the machines around us are highly connected, mobile, and increasingly have our lives in their hands, the security of these things has become a critical weakness.
Looking at autonomous cars alone, if a hostile agency were able to gain control over a critical mass of them, the potential for loss of life on a national scale could make any other man-made or natural disaster look trivial by comparison.
I spent the last several days at a BlackBerry analyst event in New York, and I think the company is more important than Apple is to our future, I think it is more important to Apple than Apple realizes.
I’ll explain and then close with my product of the week: a robotic dog you can’t yet buy but that could protect your home better than a real dog could. It also showcases why we need a greater focus on security than we now have.
The Critical Nature of Smartphone Security
Increasingly, our smartphones are becoming the virtual us. Many of us shop on them and communicate on them, and they are becoming the replacement for our wallets and credit cards. Some of us unlock our homes and cars with them. It won’t be long, if trends in place now continue, before all we’ll need is our cellphone to access everything from our bank accounts to our medical records. It is becoming the virtual us.
The problem is that if our phone becomes compromised, someone else suddenly could have at least as much control over all our resources as we do. With that control, someone not only could take control but also could deny us access to our own things. We could wake up one morning with no ability to operate anything in our homes, access our car, or even get into work. If that happened while we were away, we wouldn’t be able to get back inside our own home.
With one virtual move, we could effectively be erased and replaced digitally. Today it takes around a year and US$250K to get an identity secured after it has been stolen, but in an unsecured future, we might be barred from the resources we’d need to get our identity back.
Given the increase in the trend to work remotely and perhaps never actually meet anyone we work with on a regular basis, and the ease of digitizing and cloning images, it isn’t hard to imagine a growing problem of people becoming homeless — or worse, losing their lives — because they were denied access to the things they needed to keep them alive.
BlackBerry vs. Apple
Securing these things is what BlackBerry does. It remains the company most focused on this problem, and its products and services are the most widely used. I’m convinced that governments fundamentally don’t get this growing exposure because they constantly seem to want to break the security on phones like the iPhone, not realizing that the small crime they are trying to solve could open everyone else to crimes en masse.
Governments have proven unable to secure themselves, so if government officials get the equivalent of a master key into every phone, so will hostile agents and criminals.
Governments tend to think tactically, and no company — not Apple or Google — can hold off major governments for long. They simply have too much power. So far, Canada has proven to be relatively reasonable in this regard. BlackBerry security, standing outside of Apple or Google, can provide a defense against ill-conceived government stupidity that Apple and Google can’t.
Netting this out, the reason BlackBerry arguably is more important to us — and potentially to firms like Apple and Google — is that it is uniquely able to keep us safe as we move into this future of smartphones as the virtual us. While movies, games and pretty phones are nice, I tend to think keeping myself, my assets and my loved ones safe has far higher value.
BlackBerry’s Missed Opportunity
A great deal of last week’s event focused on how well BlackBerry was doing. It is out of the financial woods. It has decent cash reserves, and all of its large-scale new efforts, including automotive, have been growing in decent double digits.
However, as we move to this future of smartphones as the digital us, one of BlackBerry’s most important offerings has to do with securing individual phones. Of the company’s future-focused businesses, this is its most important — but it is also the one getting the least attention.
I’m not suggesting that BlackBerry go back to building phones en masse. That said, just as it is mocking up cars to anticipate the future of autonomous cars that also need to be secure, it should be offering a stronger concept of what a truly safe phone will need to be in the 2020s.
You see, it won’t matter if the car is secure if the device we use to access and control it isn’t. I’m reminded of the IBM mainframe and Web Services. Looking back at the way the world was in the 1980s, we had central computing and dumb terminals, and the equipment was leased. Now we have browsers that aren’t that different from dumb terminals, and the industry is going back to a centralized compute model in which the hardware is rented.
Had IBM not stepped away from the mainframe in the 1990s, it likely would dominate the cloud today. I think BlackBerry might be making the same mistake with its reduced investment in driving the future of smartphones.
It is uniquely capable of envisioning the secure smartphone of the future, which — like the mainframe vs. cloud — is less about today’s hardware than it is about today’s experience. By missing this, it also misses what is not just an opportunity for them, but a critical part of our own safety and security.
BlackBerry is doing surprisingly well, and I was amazed at how well penetrated it is into markets like freight. It does much of the tracking and reporting to automotive, where it remains a major part of the car’s control and entertainment systems.
We will desperately need a phone architecture that is secure — not just from criminals, but from our own misguided governments — so that we are better able to survive and benefit from our increasingly autonomous and robotic future rather than be hurt — or worse, killed — by it.
As a race, we tend to focus on blame rather than fixing problems. If you look at the Russian election hacking, Russia allegedly did no worse than we do to other countries, yet we clearly didn’t protect ourselves. Still, our focus appears to be more on trying to find people to punish rather than making sure it never happens again.
As we move to autonomous robots, homes, cities and cars, that attitude could kill us. If enough machines go rogue, there soon may be no one left alive for us to blame.
I picked a product that makes my point this week. This is clearly not a shipping product, but it could evolve into a product that at least some affluent homes would have and certainly many companies would deploy.
The SpotMini Robotic Dog from Boston Dynamics, the first new product I’ve seen since Softbank bought the firm from Google, is a next generation Robotic security device modeled after a dog.
It is fast, it moves like an animal, and it even seems to get excited about going out. However, unlike a dog, it is armored, and it could carry integrated weapons packages that could stun or kill. Something similar to it likely will be deployed to secure everything from airports to military facilities, to shopping centers and gated communities.
This “dog” likely will identify you both by visual technology and by electronics, such as your smartphone. Unlike your actual dog, it will be a machine — which means that while you are authorized it might be friendly or even playful. However, if you are fired, or suddenly marked digitally as hostile, that playfulness could immediately morph into aggression.
Imagine a smaller version of this thing in your home, suddenly deciding you were an intruder, or deciding that the folks walking into work were attacking the company.
The SpotMini is cool, but it showcases that we better lock down whatever identifies us as us, or we will face the very real possibility that this new class of helpful robots will be more homicidal than helpful for far too many of us.
So, while the SpotMini is my product of the week, until we lock down what identifies us to products like this, I’ll let you buy it before I do.