Lawsuit reveals an open BlackBerry

Users surprised that even 'PIN' messages can be logged

Private messages exchanged using corporate BlackBerry wireless devices may not be quite so private after all. In fact, even the so-called PIN messages that many users thought were untraceable can be logged.

The lack of BlackBerry privacy became clear in a lawsuit filed in Toronto by Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). The bank submitted scores of BlackBerry emails and PIN messages as evidence that several former executives took confidential information from the company and tried to recruit others while they were still employees of the bank.

The lawsuit was filed against Genuity Capital Markets, a Toronto-based investment management firm established by six former CIBC employees. David Kassie, Genuity's CEO, declined to comment about the suit.

The messages that were submitted as evidence included ones sent between BlackBerries using the devices' personal identification numbers (PIN) instead of email addresses.

That form of BlackBerry communication has been considered by many users to be more private than sending messages between email addresses, because PIN messages are sent directly from one device to another. Standard BlackBerry email is routed via an enterprise server and can be logged and archived like other email messages.

BlackBerry devices are manufactured by Toronto-based Research In Motion, which claims over two million subscribers at thousands of companies worldwide.

"PIN messaging is common in financial circles and workgroups," says an executive at a Toronto-based technology vendor who asked not to be identified. "It's kind of like an SMS or instant message" that can't be monitored or logged by the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, the executive says. Thus, many people use the feature to exchange private or sensitive information.

The fact that CIBC logged such messages is bound to surprise many people, says Thomas Smith, a director of the International BlackBerry User Group in California.

"I wasn't aware that PIN messages could be logged, but I'm not completely shocked either," says Smith, who administers more than 500 BlackBerry devices at his Houston-based employer, which he asked not to be named. Users of such devices "without question" believe that PIN messages can't be logged, he says.

But that's a mistake, says Rob Moffat, president of Wallace Wireless, a New York-based vendor of software for BlackBerry devices. "There is some misunderstanding about the ability to archive such messages," he says.

The reality is that such messages can indeed be logged, says Moffat, whose company sells software that, among other things, can be used to capture BlackBerry PIN communications. The function is increasingly being used by financial services firms and government agencies to log BlackBerry communication, he says. "There's Nasdaq, NASD and Sarbanes-Oxley stuff that these companies need to comply with," he says.

The news should come as no surprise to security professionals, says Pete Lindstrom, an analyst at Pensylvania-based Spire Consulting. "Most people think of peer-to-peer communications as a person-to-person thing," he says. "But somewhere in between, there's almost always a server.

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