Wireless messages sent on a BlackBerry are so hard to intercept that the smartphones have become the device of choice for both criminals and law enforcement, police say.
While some police admit that level of security makes the BlackBerry their preferred handheld device, they also say that also makes it hard for them to listen in on suspected criminals.
"It does limit our abilities to intercept, which in turn minimizes our abilities to prevent the crimes," said Supt. Pat Fogerty of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of British Columbia, a division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The problem is that BlackBerry smartphones, designed by Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion initially for corporate clients, run software called the BlackBerry Enterprise Server that creates a secure and private network and encrypts data.
'The starting point to striking the balance is law enforcement making the case that there is a problem today.' — Michael Geist, law professor
Police say criminals are using additional layers of encryption with other types of software, bringing the encryption level up to military grade.
"They completely know that this technology is to their advantage," Fogerty said, "and they will stay on that technology until such time that there is new technology that will be even more secure."
Tappability an 'essential tool': MP
Liberal MP Marlene Jennings said police have been asking for years for legislation that would force internet and wireless providers to use technology that can be tapped.
"Law enforcement needs it, Canadians need it; it's an essential tool for the battle against crime," she told CBC News Tuesday.
This past winter, Jennings re-tabled a 2005 Liberal bill that would force wireless service providers to make their devices intercept-ready. The bill, the Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act (MITA), had died when the 2006 election was called, but Jennings had re-introduced it as a private member's bill once before, in 2007.
At the time, she said Canadian telecommunications companies had expressed concerns about the cost of the technology to make their devices tappable, but suggested the government could discuss the possibility of subsidizing that cost.
Police must make their case: researcher
University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist said the cost of the technology is not the only problem with such a bill — it could possibly hurt an industry whose legitimate customers also rely on mobile devices.
"There's obviously many businesses that are willing to use these devices because they're comfortable with the security attached to them," said Geist, who holds a Canada Research Chair of internet and e-commerce law.
"Many individuals, as well, I think, would be reluctant to use mobile email devices if there was concern that third parties might be able to access it."
Geist said there needs to be a balance between people's right to privacy and security and law enforcement's investigative needs. Law enforcement has been demanding faster, quicker access to certain types of information, often without court involvement. But so far, he says, police have been unable to make a compelling case that any of their investigations have been impeded by a lack of quick access to certain information or communications.
"The starting point to striking the balance is law enforcement making the case that there is a problem today."
In February, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan told the House of Commons public safety and national security committee that Canada needs to update its wiretapping laws.
Such a law is expected to require law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant before they can force internet service providers to give up customer information. In 2007, former public safety minister Stockwell Day made a promise to include that requirement.