BlackBerry’s “end-to-end security” didn’t do El Chapo any favors

Phone buddies.
Phone buddies.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Becerril
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That one of the world’s most elusive fugitives chose a BlackBerry could have been a huge endorsement for the battered Canadian cellphone company.

Except Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, once Mexico’s most-wanted criminal, was busted after his BlackBerry messages were obtained by the Mexican government. His BlackBerry conversations with Mexican actress Kate de Castillo, who helped organize an interview with US actor Sean Penn, were one of the many elements that led to his arrest (link in Spanish,) Mexico’s Secretario of the Interior, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, told Radio Fórmula.

On Jan. 12, Mexican newspaper Milenio published a lengthy apparent exchange (Spanish) between Guzmán, his associates and del Castillo.

While still in hiding, Guzmán carefully deliberated what phone to get del Castillo, with whom he appears to have been infatuated, according to the string of alleged messages. His starting criteria for the purchase appears to have been popularity and looks.

“Which [phones] are the most fashionable right now?” he asks his associates.

“Which one is the prettiest to look at?” reads another message.

Among his options were the BlackBerry Leap, the iPhone 6 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy 6 Edge.

He finally settled on a BlackBerry Z30, even if it didn’t come in the pale pink color he said he wanted for del Castillo. (After asking at four customer service centers, Guzmán’s associates confirmed that the Z30 only comes in black and silver. “Buy it gray,” he said.)

Del Castillo, who used the alias “Ermoza,” a misspelled version of “beautiful” in the messages, appeared to be pleased with the choice. “Thanks for sending me this gadget that is soooo modern!” she wrote.

It’s unclear how Mexican authorities got the BlackBerry communications published by Milenio. They could have been leaked by one of the participants. BlackBerry could have shared the messages with law enforcement agents investigating El Chapo. Still, it doesn’t look good for the company. BlackBerry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

BlackBerry has enjoyed a reputation of being highly secure, with several world leaders reportedly relying on the company’s devices.  US president Barack Obama still uses one.

Each phone has a unique ID, or PIN, that is stored locally. The PINs work as encryption keys that provide an added layer of security to messages between BlackBerry users than what is available for regular texts, Ken Dulaney, a mobile analyst at Gartner, tells Quartz. BlackBerry calls it “end-to-end security.”

But that reputation for security is eroding.  Dutch police have learned how to crack encrypted BlackBerry messages, according to recent reports. In response, BlackBerry said in a statement that there are no “backdoors” to its devices.

The news that Blackberry messages could have played a part in El Chapo’s capture can’t be heartening for those who use the device to maximize privacy. These days there is simply no system that can entirely guarantee security for individuals like El Chapo, or anyone else, says Dulaney. “If I was a criminal I’d be nervous about all them,” he adds.