Canadian lawsuit raises messaging privacy issue

Messages sent on corporate BlackBerry devices are at issue

Private messages exchanged using corporate BlackBerry wireless devices may not be quite so private after all.

In a lawsuit filed in Toronto this week, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) submitted scores of BlackBerry e-mails and messages as evidence that several former executives took confidential information from the company and tried to recruit others while they were still employees at the bank.

The lawsuit was filed against Genuity Capital Markets, a Toronto-based investment management firm started by six former employees of CIBC.

The messages submitted as evidence include so-called PIN messages sent between users with the BlackBerry's personal identification numbers instead of e-mail addresses.

This form of BlackBerry communication is generally considered more private than using e-mail addresses because PIN messages are sent directly from one BlackBerry device to another. Standard BlackBerry e-mails, on the other hand, are routed via a BlackBerry Enterprise Server and can be logged and archived like any other e-mail messages.

BlackBerry devices are manufactured by Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion Ltd., which claims more than 2 million subscribers at thousands of companies worldwide.

"PIN messaging is common in financial circles and workgroups," said 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 itself, the executive said. As a result, many use the feature to exchange private and sensitive information with one another.

The fact that CIBC logged such messages is bound to come as a surprise to many users, said Thomas Smith, a director of the International BlackBerry User Group in Mountain View, Calif.

"I wasn't aware that PIN messages could be logged, but I'm not completely shocked either," said Smith, who administers more than 500 BlackBerry devices at the Houston-based company he works for. He asked that the company not be named.

Users of such devices "without question" believe that PIN messages can't be logged, Smith said.

That's a mistake, said Rob Moffat, president of Wallace Wireless, a vendor of software for BlackBerry devices in Amherst, N.Y. "There is some misunderstanding about the ability to archive such messages," he said. "The perception is that people can send PIN messages and there's no traceability."

The reality is that such messages can indeed be logged, said Moffat, whose company sells software that, among other things, allows companies to log BlackBerry PIN communications. The function has been available as a rarely used part of a broader business continuity software suite for some time now. But it's increasingly being used by financial services companies and government organizations to log BlackBerry communications, he said.

"There's specific Nasdaq, NASD and Sarbanes-Oxley stuff that these companies need to comply with," Moffat said.

The news should come as no surprise to security professionals, said Pete Lindstrom, an analyst at Malvern, Pa.-based Spire Security LLC. "Most people think of peer-to-peer communications as being a person-to-person thing. But somewhere in between there's almost always a server intercepting this stuff and logging it."

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