Edward Snowden says BlackBerry will be “erased from the pages of history” for its stance on privacy

Edward Snowden

The Cantech 2017 Investment Conference in Toronto featured an interview with American Edward Snowden, well-known for his role in exposing the scope of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programs.

Over video conference, Snowden spoke with Round 13 Capital managing partner and The Disruptors co-host (disclosure: BetaKit is a production partner), Bruce Croxon, on a wide range of subjects, including what it means for the government to have access to private data on a mass scale, and the role corporations play in protecting their customers’ data.

“Ultimately, we’re not talking about privacy, we’re talking about the quality of society.”
– Edward Snowden

“The stipulation [is that] if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. What this is encouraging is to live a life in a vulnerable state. To expose yourself to the depredations of an outside group to scrutinize how you live, what you think, what your ideas are as long as what you do is okay by them,” said Snowden. “This misunderstands what rights are about and what privacy is about. Privacy isn’t about something to hide, it’s about something to protect.”

Snowden called out a number of companies, such as AT&T, for its role in helping the government obtain customer data in exchange for regulatory benefits. When asked about former Canadian tech giant BlackBerry by Croxon, Snowden called the company out for its public claims of security.

Last year, it was reported by Vice Canada that the RCMP has had backdoor access BBM since at least 2010, and decrypted more than one million messages (BlackBerry eventually responded to the report, saying there was a balance between “doing what’s right, and “preventing government abuse” of privacy).

Snowden claimed that while BlackBerry has tried to obscure its role in cooperating with government requests in North America, the company also cooperates in other markets, including India.

“They [BlackBerry] follow the AT&T model which is that the customer is not really the customer, the state is the customer.”

“India said ‘we’ll cut your market access unless you unlock these communications that we want for investigations that are going through your enterprise service, and BlackBerry says ‘okay’,” said Snowden, referring to 2013 reports that BlackBerry made a deal with the government to provide access to users’ BBM chats and emails. “They follow the AT&T model which is that the customer is not really the customer, the state is the customer. That’s the only person they really have to please.”

Snowden’s comments come shortly after BlackBerry’s signed partnership with Rudy Giuliani’s security consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, to use BlackBerry’s Secure platform in support of government and enterprise customers. Giuliani, recently named a cybersecurity advisor in the Trump administration, has been criticized for his own alleged lack of cybersecurity knowledge.

The Waterloo company has also opened a Washington, DC-based security innovation centre, which BlackBerry CEO John Chen said will “serve as a hub for collaboration with key government customers and other expert partners.”

During the interview, Snowden contrasted BlackBerry’s approach with Apple’s stance on protecting its customers’ privacy, despite, as Snowden said, being accused by government officials of “helping terrorists” in the past, notably following the San Bernadino shooter, where the company refused to hand over data from one shooter’s iPhone.

“You can end up standing up for what is right, you have to trust that even if it is digital, if you take a principled stand that that will do more good not just for your bottom line or country, but for your society and future,” said Snowden.

Snowden had harsher words for BlackBerry on its cooperation with the government agencies: “This is why they’re going to be erased from the pages of history. Apple is a very successful company, particularly as they make this pivot toward enforcing quite publicly the privacy rights. Ultimately, we’re not talking about privacy, we’re talking about the quality of society.”

Feature photo courtesy Twitter.

UPDATE 01/22/2017 (8:52 P.M. EST) : BetaKit received the following statement from Sarah McKinney, director of corporate communications, regarding this story:

“Providing the highest level of security and privacy has always been the core of BlackBerry’s mission.
Last year, we were willing to shut down our entire business in Pakistan to stand up for the principle that we do not allow backdoor access to our encrypted e-mail and messaging servers. We stood firm, and ultimately the Pakistani government relented.

Others in our industry have sometimes sacrificed their customers’ privacy in certain countries for the sake of profit. We do not.

Over the past year, BlackBerry has transformed itself into an enterprise software company and no longer develops mass-market consumer data storage services. We have no backdoors in our business products and have always denied access to our BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). Only our enterprise clients have control over the encryption keys for these communications. Without the ability for backdoor access, our BES continues to be impenetrable and is the most secure mobile platform for managing all mobile devices.
As we work to provide enterprises and governments with the highest standard of security, enabling them to be BlackBerry Secure, we will apply our privacy commitment and expertise to ensure the safety of users throughout the growing Internet of Things, including self-driving connected cars, wireless medical devices, and more.”