Criminals, Organizers and Many Others Had BlackBerries in Common

Canada International

blackberryNew Orleans   I used, and loved, a BlackBerry for years, as a second data-only device largely for international travel, when the cost structure was great for that sort of thing.  The keyboard was so easy to manage that my daughter was so convinced I could not make the change to a touch screen that my current phone has a pullout that I’ve only used once or twice in the year or more since I converted.  Besides all of that my frequent visits to Canada gave me more street cred with a Blackberry since it was a national favorite there for so long.

There was also this weird BlackBerry thing that the ACORN Canada organizers loved.  Government employees had discovered that they could secretly communicate between each other’s government issued BlackBerries from PIN number to PIN number without their overseers knowing they were emailing back and forth on work time.  Gradually word got out to Canadian civilians, and for no good reason the whole staff used the numbers to communicate off the grid and the servers from time to time.  As a leading representative of the unhip, I would often have to email asking for their PINs and offering mine, which would have allowed any NSA spy patrol to put me on the moron list for sure, but, hey, the info was usually on the order of what bar the staff was going to that night, so it was hardly clock-and-dagger stuff.

On the other hand it’s amazing to me to keep reading how frequently the real pros in the Edward Snowden class of things were all over the BlackBerry PIN thing, which even had real names relating to instant messaging.   Even more of an eye opener was how critical the system was to El Chapo and his cohorts in the ruthless and wildly successful Mexican drug cartel called Sinola after the state where they had deep roots and operations.

Here’s a sobering section from a current New Yorker story on how the system worked and was used:

It has been reported, erroneously, that Guzman used a satellite phone; in fact his favored communication device was the BlackBerry.  Like many narcos, he was suspicious of satellite phones, because most of the companies that manufacture them are American and the devices are relatively easy for law-enforcement officials to compromise.  But the BlackBerry is made by a Canadian company….  If you needed to communicate with the boss, you could reach him via B.B.M., BlackBerry’s instant-messaging application.  Your message would go not directly to Guzman, however, but to a trusted lieutenant, who spend his days in Starbucks coffee shops and other locations with public wireless networks.  Upon receiving the message, the lieutenant would transcribe it onto an iPad, so that he could forward the text using WiFi – avoiding the cellular networks that the cartel knew the authorities were trolling.  The transcribed message would be sent not to Guzman but to a second intermediary, who, also using a tablet and public WiFi, would transcribe the words onto his BlackBerry and relay them to Guzman.  Although Guzman continued to use a BlackBerry, it was almost impossible to track, because it communicated with only one other device.  When he received your message, his reply would be relayed back to you through the same indirect means.  This is sometimes described as a ‘mirror’ system, and it is fiendishly difficult for authorities to penetrate (especially when the transcribers keep moving from one WiFi hot spot to another).

Those devilishly tricky Canadians came up with this though most of them were probably as clueless about the end user application as me and the rest of the ACORN Canadian organizing staff continued to be.  Amazing that its cartel fans didn’t do more to inject life into Blackberry as it imploded in the marketplace in recent years.  What a tool!