Former NSA Lawyer Says BlackBerry Declined Because Encryption Isn’t a Good Business Model

Did all that secure BBMing ruin things for BlackBerry?

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Tuesday at Web Summit in Dublin, former NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker said that expanded encryption efforts by tech companies like Apple and Google do more to harm U.S. intelligence than they do to defend against wrongful and excessive surveillance worldwide.

But that’s not all! During a panel that included Matthew Prince, the CEO of cloud security company Cloudflare, Baker also told Guardian special projects editor James Ball that strengthening encryption is bad for business, citing BlackBerry as an example.

The state department has funded some of these tools, such as Tor, which has been used in Arab Spring revolutions or to get past the Chinese firewall, but these crypto wars are mainly being fought between the American government and American companies. … Blackberry pioneered the same business model that Google and Apple are doing now—that has not ended well for Blackberry.

Baker’s argument is that BlackBerry’s emphasis on privacy made it a tough sell in countries like Russia, China, and India. He added that employers should be able to relate since most of them probably don’t want to be completely locked out of their employees’ communications.

“Tech companies are picking a big public fight with the NSA because it looks good, as opposed to changing the ability of government to get data,” Baker said. “The crypto wars have about as much to do with the outcome of security as the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939 had to do with the outcome of WW2.” (The crypto wars involve private individuals and organizations attempting to implement secure encryption while governments work to undermine this encrypton or demand backdoors.)

Prince shot back that the companies need to take steps to gain back user trust in the wake of last year’s Snowden revelations, and added that interest in widespread vulnerabilities like Heartbleed and Poodle shows that individuals are ready to engage about privacy.

Given all of the weird/extremely ill-advised business decisions BlackBerry made in terms of ignoring trends and failing to produce products consumers wanted during its decline, it seems strange to call out a strong stance on encryption as the thing that brought the company to its knees. But perhaps Baker knows something we don’t about what happens to companies that don’t give the NSA a backdoor into their user data.