Canada’s national law enforcement agency is becoming something of a go-to expert on encryption.
Late last week, police in the U.K. secured their country’s largest gun smuggling conviction with help from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Two men, Harry Shilling and Michael Defraine, were convicted on April 21st on several gun smuggling and firearm charges. The pair face possible life sentences.
The guns the two were trying to bring into the U.K. came from the same source in Slovakia as the weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, reports The Guardian. All told, police confiscated 22 Czech VZ-58 assault rifles, a gun similar to the more well-known AK-47, nine Skorpion machine pistols, and more than a thousand rounds of ammunition.
Central to the conviction was the help of the RCMP’s tech lab in Ottawa. After capturing the gun shipment, police seized the two men’s PGP BlackBerry smartphones and sent them to the Mounties.
PGP, short for Pretty Good Privacy, is a type of custom encryption software that can be installed on BlackBerry devices by a third-party to secure email communication. While there are any number of reasons a person may decide to secure their smartphone with additional encryption, over the past couple of years PGP BlackBerrys have shown up in a number of high-profile crime cases, including a kidnapping case in British Columbia.
The RCMP was able to break the encryption found on the phones used by Shilling and Defraine, providing the National Crime Agency, the U.K.’s equivalent to the RCMP, with more than enough evidence to pursue its case against the two men. “We now officially gangsters,” said Shilling to his associate in one email. In another message, one of the men said the two were “proper heavy and armed to the teeth,” adding people should “duck and run for cover.”
Court documents dated to 2015 reveal the RCMP has had the capability to break the encryption found on PGP BlackBerry smartphones since at least 2015. In unusually colourful language for a legal document, the federal government describes how the RCMP was able to break open a PGP BlackBerry used in an Ontario drug case, leading to a conviction. “This encryption was previously thought to be undefeatable. The RCMP technological laboratory destroyed this illusion and extracted from this phone 406 e-mails, 25 address book entries and other information all of which had been protected,” says the document.
In fact, the past couple of weeks have revealed the RCMP to be something of an expert on digital encryption, particularly as it pertains to BlackBerry devices.
Court documents obtained by Vice Canada and Motherboard Canada two weeks ago suggest the RCMP has the capability to intercept and decrypt pin-to-pin messages sent via BBM using a server located in Ottawa. However, those same documents also suggest BlackBerry may have given the RCMP access to its global BBM encryption key to facilitate the police agency’s investigation into a 2011 Montreal gang shooting. In statement published on the company’s Inside BlackBerry blog, BlackBerry CEO John Chen neither confirmed nor denied whether BlackBerry assisted the RCMP in such a manner.
“This very belief was put to the test in an old case that recently resurfaced in the news, which speculated on and challenged BlackBerry’s corporate and ethical principles. In the end, the case resulted in a major criminal organization being dismantled. Regarding BlackBerry’s assistance, I can reaffirm that we stood by our lawful access principles,” he said in the statement issued last Monday.