French government defense experts fear BlackBerry handheld computers

BlackBerry handheld computers, or "Le BlackBerry", have been called addictive, invasive, tiresome for thumbs and threatening to French secrets.

That, at least, is the fear of French government defense experts, who have advised against their use by officials in France's corridors of power, reportedly to avoid snooping by U.S. intelligence agencies and the loss of commercial and other secrets.

"It's not a question of trust," French lawmaker Pierre Lasbordes told The Associated Press. "We are friends with the Americans, the Anglo-Saxons, but it's economic war."

Le Monde broke the story. It described "BlackBerry withdrawal" among those who have given up their PDAs. "We feel that we are wasting huge amounts of time, having to relearn how to work in the old way," the daily quoted a ministry office director as saying.

E-mails sent from BlackBerries pass through servers in the United States and Britain, and France fears that makes the system vulnerable to snooping by the National Security Agency, the ears and eyes of U.S. intelligence, Le Monde reported.

Lasbordes, who was commissioned in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to look into such issues, said he alerted the government to this "weakness" months ago. He said he met with Research In Motion Ltd., which makes BlackBerry devices, to discuss the problem in the course of preparing his report on the security of French information systems.

The Canadian company "admitted that there was a certain fragility in the protection of information when you use the e-mail system" and promised it would be resolved, said Lasbordes, adding: "That was more than a year ago."

BlackBerries pose "a problem with the protection of information" and "the risks of interception are real," Alain Juillet, in charge of economic intelligence for the government, told Le Monde.

The BlackBerry circular from the General Secretariat for National Defense applies in theory to all ministries, and "it's up to everyone to be responsible," Lasbordes said.

Another official in a major ministry who got rid of his BlackBerry following the order said authorities are looking at other types of PDA that they may be able to use instead.

The prime minister's office would not confirm that it and the presidential palace were covered by the circular, as Le Monde said. But a spokesman, Severin Naudet, cited the General Secretariat for National Defense as saying that no type of PDA is risk-free.

"It's not a problem if you're writing to your mother-in-law," Lasbordes said. But "one can imagine a minister coming from a meeting of the G-8 or G-7, et cetera, or a meeting in Brussels, and he sends information to his colleagues. It goes via Canada and the United States and that's it, game over."

Suspicion, however, goes both ways. At a G-8 summit in Germany this month, White House aides were instructed to leave their wireless e-mail devices behind, apparently for fear of Russian eavesdropping.