Summary: BlackBerry is poised for a fresh and well differentiated play in the Internet of Things, with its combination of handset hardware security, its uniquely rated QNX operating system kernel, and its experience with the FIDO device authentication protocols.
To put it plainly, BlackBerry is not cool.
And neither is security.
But maybe two wrongs can make a right, in terms of a compelling story. BlackBerry’s security story has always been strong, it’s getting stronger, and it could save them.
Today I attended the BlackBerry Security Summit in New York City (Disclosure: my travel and accommodation were paid by BlackBerry). The event was announced very recently; none of my colleagues had heard of it. So what was the compelling need to put on a security show in New York? It turned out to be the 9:00am announcement that BlackBerry is acquiring the German voice security specialists Secusmart. BlackBerry and Secusmart have worked together for a long time; their stated aim is to put a real secure phone in the “hand of every President and every Chancellor”.
Secusmart CEO Hans-Christoph Quelle is a forceful champion of voice security; in this age of evidently routine spying by state and competitors alike, there is enormous demand building for counter-surveillance in telephony and messaging. Secusmart is also responsible for the highly rated Micro SD cards that BlackBerry proudly use as removable security modules in their handsets. And this is where the SecuSmart tie-up really resonates for me. It comes hot on the heels of last week’s Cloud Security Summit, where there was so much support for personal Hardware Security Modules (HSMs), be they Micro SD cards, USB keys, NFC Secure Elements, the good old “Trusted Platform Module” (TPM) or any number of proprietary chip sets.
Today’s event also showcased BlackBerry’s QNX division (acquired in 2010) and its secure operating system. CEO John Chen reckons that the software in 50% of connected cars runs on the QNX OS (and in high reliability settings like power stations, wind turbines and even gaming machines, the penetration is even higher). And so he is positioning BlackBerry as a major player in the Internet of Things.
We heard from QNX founder Dan Dodge about the elegance of their system. At just 100,000 lines of code, Dodge stressed that his team knows the software inside-out. There is not a single line of code in their OS that QNX did not write themselves. In contrast, such mastery is utterly impossible in the 15,000,000 lines that make up Linux or the estimated 50-70 million lines in Windows. It happens that I’ve recently lamented the parlous state of software quality and the need to return to first principles security. So I am on Dan Dodge’s wavelength.
BlackBerry’s security people had a little bit to say about identity as well, and apparently more’s to come. For now, they are flagging that with 250 million customers in their messaging system, BBM represents “one of the biggest identity systems in the world”. And as such the company does plan to “federate” it somehow. They reminded us at the same time of the BlackBerry Cloud slated for launch in December.
Going forward, the importance of strong, physical Two Factor Authentication for accessing the cloud is almost a given now. And the smartphone is fast becoming the predominant access mechanism, so the combination of secure elements, handsets and high security infrastructure is potent.
There’s a lot that BlackBerry is keeping close to its chest, but for me one extant piece of the IoT puzzle was conspicuously absent today: the role of the FIDO Alliance protocols. After all, BlackBerry has been a FIDO Board Member for a long time. It seems to me that FIDO’s protocols for exchanging verified authentication signals and information about devices should be an important element of BlackBerry’s play in both its software infrastructure and its devices.
In closing, I’ll revisit the very first thing we heard at today’s event. It was a video testimonial, telling us “If you need nuclear security, you need BlackBerry”. As I said, security really isn’t cool. Jazzing up the company’s ability to deliver “nuclear” grade to demanding clients is actually not the right message. Security in the Internet of Things — and therefore in everyday life — may turn out to be just as important.
We basically know that nuclear power plants are inherently risky; we know that planes will occasionally fall out of the sky. Paradoxically, the community has a reasonable appetite for risk and failures in very complex systems like those. Individually and/or collectively we have decided we just can’t live without electricity and travel and so we’ve come to settle on a roughly acceptable finite cost in terms of failures. But when the mundanities of life go digital, the tolerance of failure will drop. When our cars and thermostats and light switches are connected to the Internet, and when a bug or a script kiddie’s stunt can soon send whole neighbourhoods into a spin, consumers won’t stand for it.
So the very best security we can currently engineer is in fact going to be necessary at scale for smart appliances, wearables, connected homes, smart meters and networked cars. We need a different gauge for this type of security, and it’s going to be very tough to engineer and deploy economically. But right now, with its deep understanding of dependable OS’s and commitment to high quality device hardware, it seems to me BlackBerry has a head-start in the Internet of Things.