After several federal agencies said they will stop using BlackBerry devices and switch to iPhones, Research In Motion took the unusual step today of announcing a tough security certification for BlackBerry 10 in advance of the device's launch next quarter.
This is the first time that a BlackBerry product has been certified as meeting the Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) ahead of launch, RIM said in a statement.
The certification means that U.S. government agencies around the globe will be able to deploy BlackBerry 10 smartphones and BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 from the day of launch, set for sometime in the first quarter, RIM said. FIPS 140-2, in this case, recognizes the AES 256-bit encryption used by BlackBerry devices.
FIPS 140 certification is issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which certifies products for use by U.S. government agencies and regulated industries that handle sensitive information.
The FIPS certification is also supported by the Communications Security Establishment for the Canadian government. And BlackBerry security is also recognized by the Common Criteria Certification, a security clearance used by 26 countries, RIM noted.
"What differentiates BlackBerry is that it integrates end-to-end security and includes security encryption algorithms for data at rest and data in transit," said Michael Brown, vice president of security product management at RIM. "No other mobile solution has achieved the level of security accreditation that the BlackBerry solution has."
U.S. government agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced earlier this year that they planned to switch from BlackBerry devices to iPhones for their employees. In the case of ICE, the switch to iPhones affects more than 17,600 users.
While the focus at RIM is on the high level of security in its products, some U.S. government officials have said the iPhone, with a better touchscreen and Web browser, offers greater ease of use for workers than BlackBerry devices do.
In justifying the iPhone purchases, ICE said that Apple also has strict control of the iPhone hardware and operating system and gives the agency the greatest degree of control and management to ensure reliable services to users. ICE also ranked RIM lower than Android and Apple devices on commercial viability and called RIM a laggard in the consumer market.
RIM told CNN.com recently that it still has 1 million government customers in North America, and about 400,000 of them upgraded their BlackBerry devices in the past year.
Despite the rejection of BlackBerry by some federal agencies, the platform is still seen as the gold standard in security for mobile devices used by enterprise and government workers, according to many analysts. Stacy Crook, an analyst at IDC, said if RIM can maintain its reputation for security while enhancing the user experience, it will give "BlackBerry 10 the opportunity to be a highly competitive platform in the government, enterprise and consumer sectors."
A RIM spokeswoman said the certification announcement was made primarily to reflect an important milestone for BlackBerry 10 and as an indication that it is on track for release in the first quarter of 2013.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.