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BlackBerry CEO: tech companies should help government with ‘reasonable’ data requests

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In contrast to Apple's position

BlackBerry CEO John Chen responded today to reports claiming the company cooperated with Canadian police to intercept and decrypt more than one million secure messages sent using BlackBerry devices. Although he did not confirm or deny having handed over a global encryption key, Chen confirmed his company's involvement, writing in a blog post, "Regarding BlackBerry’s assistance, I can reaffirm that we stood by our lawful access principles."

BlackBerry has said in the past that cooperating with law enforcement is within its legal and ethical boundaries. "We have long been clear in our stance that tech companies as good corporate citizens should comply with reasonable lawful access requests," Chen wrote. "I have stated before that we are indeed in a dark place when companies put their reputations above the greater good."

"Tech companies ... should comply with reasonable lawful access requests."

The statement is a clear refutation of Apple's position in the ongoing encryption saga. The iPhone maker has gone head-to-head with the FBI this year over its refusal to help unlock a device belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. Although Apple has aided law enforcement in other ways, including handing iCloud information over to the FBI in the Farook case, the company's staunch refusal to help unlock an iPhone outright has kicked off a fierce debate over the responsibilities of tech companies regarding matters of national security.

The BlackBerry reports, published last week by both Vice and its sister site Motherboard, said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RMCP) had obtained an encryption key for BlackBerry's PIN-to-PIN messaging protocol. The technology underpins both PIN messages and Blackberry's BBM service. The RCMP reportedly used the key — and a BlackBerry interception system set up in Ottawa — to collect communications as part of a criminal operation called Project Clemenza, which was investigating a high-profile gang-related murder.

"In the end, the case resulted in a major criminal organization being dismantled," Chen wrote. It's unclear if the RMCP are still collecting BlackBerry communications and if the encryption key used is still valid. Chen did make a point of insisting BlackBerry's corporate-grade security was not compromised by the operation. "For BlackBerry, there is a balance between doing what’s right, such as helping to apprehend criminals, and preventing government abuse of invading citizen’s privacy," he concluded.