French Government Blackballs BlackBerry on Espionage Fears

French government officials may no longer use BlackBerry devices to send and receive e-mail, according to the French newspaper Le Monde.

Citing security concerns — specifically, snooping by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) — French government security experts have reportedly banned the ubiquitous devices in ministries and the presidential palace, Le Monde reported Tuesday.

France’s General Secretariat for National Defense issued a similar warning 18 months ago, according to reports, following a study carried out by France’s head of economic intelligence, Alain Juillet. The study reportedly indicates that the devices posed a security threat.

Members of several French government departments are still secretly using the devices, according to reports.

‘Misleading Information’

Research In Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry devices are secure, thanks to the encryption used in its network, the company argues.

“Recent news reports, originating in France and rehashing a two-year-old rumor that speculates that data transmitted over the BlackBerry Enterprise Solution can be intercepted and read by the NSA in the U.S. or other ‘spy’ organizations, are based on false and misleading information,” RIM said.

“No one, including RIM, has the ability to view the content of any data communication sent using the BlackBerry Enterprise Solution because all the data is encrypted using 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption, and the origin of the e-mails cannot be traced or analyzed for content,” it added.

Widely Certified

NATO and the UK government have approved the BlackBerry Enterprise Solution for the wireless transmission of sensitive, restricted data; security agencies in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Austria and Canada have accredited the device; and certification is under way in the Netherlands and Germany.

Indeed, the British Commons Modernization Committee recently agreed to recommend allowing for the first time the use of BlackBerry devices by members of parliament in the Commons chamber. The Commons must still vote to approve the move.

“I find the security concern curious,” Neil Strother, a wireless analyst with Jupiter Research, told TechNewsWorld. “If RIM’s network were insecure, why would government officials around the world be using it? This seems more like economic posturing, and an expression of a certain level of mistrust.”

Fear and Dependence

Nevertheless, RIM’s well-loved device — loved so much, in fact, that it’s sometimes referred to as the “CrackBerry,” alluding to the addictive drug — has been the subject of security concerns before. In Australia, government staff members are reportedly prohibited from sending certain types of documents using the device, and French oil firm Total has also banned the devices.

Yet as the RIM network outage in April made abundantly clear, corporate users worldwide have become dependent on the technology.

All BlackBerry e-mail messages go through RIM’s network operations centers in Canada, with switching in the United States, Chris Hazelton, senior analyst for mobile device technology and trends at IDC Research, told TechNewsWorld.

Scarce Alternatives

“I’ve never heard of any breaches of the RIM network — that’s why it’s the first choice for enterprise users,” Hazelton said. “But unless you own the network, the wires and the routers, and encrypt with a standard no one else uses, there’s always the possibility.”

Meanwhile, in their new, sans-BlackBerry lives, France’s government officials may be hard-pressed to find a comparable solution. “There just isn’t a quick alternative,” Hazelton said.

Other offerings in the market will also involve going through other countries, Strother added: “I’m not aware of any pure-French solution.”

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