That Time BlackBerry's CEO Said Nothing While Criticizing Apple

BlackBerry CEO John Chen had some sharp vague words on the twin subjects of encryption and privacy, along with a veiled misdirection-swipe at Apple. In an editorial posted to BlackBerry's site titled "The Encryption Debate: a Way Forward," Mr. Chen said...something, I'm sure.

John Chen


John Chen at Techonomy 2010
Source: Wikimedia

You would think with that title Mr. Chen was offering a way forward in the debate over encryption and privacy. Only he doesn't. It's more like he's saying it's important to find a way to move forward without offering any solutions, proposals, or anything else germane to the discussion.

The best summary of the piece would be something like:

1.) Encryption is good.

2.) You can't have backdoors, so stop asking for them.

3.) Apple won't help law enforcement because they love themselves more than you.

4.) BlackBerry is awesome and everyone who is important has one.

5.) Another company (Telegram) did something that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

6.) We should find a way to move forward.

Go ahead and read it yourself. I pored over it several times looking for something concrete being proposed, but there's just nothing there.

Here's my point by point commentary:

1.) Yep.

2.) Yep.

3.) Uhh...I'm calling you on this one. I'll break that down in detail on page 2.

4.) LOL

5.) What's your point?

6.) No #^%&, Sherlock. How about some ideas?

Most of Mr. Chen's piece doesn't really deserve more commentary aside from emphasizing that he's not really saying anything. Encryption and privacy are important issues, and if a tech CEO—even the CEO of BlackBerry—is going to weigh in on the subject, he should have something real to say.

To give him credit where due, Mr. Chen does state succinctly and clearly that backdoors in encryption systems don't work, and without naming names, he was critical of politicians who don't understand that.

Next: John Chen's Swipe at Apple

Part 2 - John Chen's Swipe at Apple


That swipe against Apple, however, sticks in my craw because it is so disingenuous. Here's what he wrote:

For years, government officials have pleaded to the technology industry for help yet have been met with disdain. In fact, one of the world’s most powerful tech companies recently refused a lawful access request in an investigation of a known drug dealer because doing so would 'substantially tarnish the brand' of the company. We are indeed in a dark place when companies put their reputations above the greater good. At BlackBerry, we understand, arguably more than any other large tech company, the importance of our privacy commitment to product success and brand value: privacy and security form the crux of everything we do. However, our privacy commitment does not extend to criminals.

You read that and you might want to boo and hiss at the corporate mercenaries at Apple who are so cavalier about protecting us from the bad guys.

Only, that's not what Apple said. Mr. Chen's comments were about a case involving the government's ability to use a law called the All Writs Act to compel Apple's help in cracking open an iOS 7 device. This law dates from the 18th century, and there is currently debate in U.S. courts over whether or not it can be used in the digital age.

To make a long story short, what was being argued in court was whether or not the All Writs Act could be used in the manner the government was trying to use it. Apple pointed out that if the device the government wanted was running iOS 8 or iOS 9, the request for help would be moot. It being an iOS 7 device, though, Apple said it could crack it, but that it would be difficult.

Apple's attorney further argued that, "Forcing Apple to extract data in this case, absent clear legal authority to do so, could threaten the trust between Apple and its customers and substantially tarnish the Apple brand."

Apple was saying that cracking into a device without the legal authority to do so was the problem. Apple has always maintained that it complies with warrants and government requests under the law. Any company that would comply with such a request outside the law should be drawn and quartered, and John Chen should be ashamed for characterizing Apple's filing in such a self-aggrandizing manner.

And note Mr. Chen's own words in the last sentence of the quote: "our privacy commitment does not extend to criminals."

Criminals according to whom? According to Mr. Chen? Apple? The government? A law enforcement officer? A prosecutor? We are talking about accused criminals who are getting their due process. Innocent until proven guilty. You know, those foundational aspects of our judicial system that Mr. Chen would seemingly treat as hollow bromides.

This is the very essence of why we must protect privacy even when it carries risk. And it's why Apple's decision to move to end user encryption for its platforms is so important.