When it comes to Ontario provincial politics, Helen Lee says she has “nothing in common” with Premier Doug Ford.
But there is one thing, she was surprised to discover this week, they do share: an affinity for older-model BlackBerry phones.
“I really just need a phone to make or receive calls, to text, and I do very casual basic internet browsing,” said Lee, 35, a Toronto-based community services worker and co-host of a podcast about the Toronto transit system.
“I don’t need it for anything more powerful than that because it would croak.”
This week, after an aide tested positive for COVID-19, Ford went into 14-day self-isolation at his late mother’s house in Etobicoke. As the Star reported, Ford’s staff was scrambling to get him a laptop and teach him how to use it. The same story also revealed that Ford still uses a BlackBerry Classic — a phone so old that downloading attachments can be a challenge, aides said. In fact, he has a whole stash of refurbished 2014 BlackBerry Classics from a Mississauga shop that cost about $150 each.
The revelation led to a barrage of online ribbing of the 56-year-old premier for being “out of touch” and “too lazy” to get with the times. Some also openly wondered whether Ford’s use of years-old devices might make him “ripe to be hacked.”
Two technology experts told the Star the operating system that powers the BlackBerry Classic hasn’t been updated since 2018-19.
“Depending on the devices that the premier is using it might be interesting/worth noting when they last received security updates,” Chris Parsons, senior research associate at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, wrote in an email. “The older, BB10 devices such as the BlackBerry Classic have passed their end of life period (when BlackBerry provided updates for them) as of December 2019 or earlier if they were running an older version of the operating system. This means that they will not have received critical security updates for 1+ years.”
Carmi Levy, a technology analyst and journalist, said when he first heard details about Ford’s continued use of BlackBerry phones, his head spun.
“This means the province’s top elected official is using a vulnerable device that is at heightened risk of being compromised by cybercriminals,” he said in an email.
“This is an issue that extends well beyond the pop culture sarcasm of a Luddite politician struggling to stay current on modern tech. It was funny when Kim Kardashian revealed her devotion to old BlackBerrys. … It’s quite another when it’s a politician, and his continued use of outdated technology renders him — and by extension everyone he leads — unnecessarily exposed.”
Ivana Yelich, Ford’s director of media relations, did not respond to emails from the Star seeking comment.
Meanwhile, devotees of old-school phones, including Lee, took to social media this week to defend Ford’s allegiance to the BlackBerry Classic.
“Steadfast devotion to BlackBerry is the only thing I will ever have in common with Doug Ford,” she tweeted.
In a separate tweet she added that she was surprised with the characterization of Ford’s phone as “vintage” given her own phone is a BlackBerry Bold, which launched in 2010 and which “you will pry … out of my cold, dead hands.”
Lee told the Star this is her second BlackBerry Bold; she bought it used off eBay for $80.
“I’ve never been an apps person. And I can never justify paying more than $100 for a phone. So, Android and iPhone never appealed to me,” she said.
Lee, who uses a manual typewriter for creative writing and writes personal letters with a fountain pen, said she’s never felt compelled to get the latest and greatest gadgets.
It’s wasteful and bad for the environment, and makes people reliant on the “next big thing,” she said.
“These phones are built like tanks — I’ve dropped it a few times,” she added. “I have no fears of shattering the screen.”
Asked what she does if she needs directions somewhere, Lee said she’ll usually look it up on her laptop before leaving home.
Sometimes, if she’s lucky, she’ll google an address on her BlackBerry Bold and it’ll deliver a partial thumbnail map.
Like Ford, Lee also owns a used BlackBerry Classic, which she might bring out if she wants to photograph something with slightly better resolution.
“People are always impressed or amused when I pull it out and they see it. Nine times out of 10 the person will reminisce about their BlackBerry back in the day.”
Andrew Balfour, a 41-year-old managing partner of a lobbying firm in Ottawa,
told the Star he always carries two phones with him — his BlackBerry Classic for work emails and his Samsung android phone for long conference calls and so he can “actually order an Uber.”
“So super high-tech in one pocket and, like, the most low-tech in the other,” he said.
Balfour said he’s owned several BlackBerry Classics over the years and just ordered two more refurbished ones this week for $150 each from a Calgary dealer, noting that they can get “glitchy” after six or nine months.
Why go to the trouble of constantly having to replenish his stock of used BlackBerrys? A big part is the external keyboard.
“I really don’t actually know how people write lengthy notes on touch screens. It just takes me forever,” he said.
Balfour said he’s no security expert but would like to think a “senior public servant in the tech department of the Ontario government would have made sure (Ford’s) not getting budget documents on a device that is not secure.”
What terrifies him most though is the day that his BlackBerry Classic isn’t supported anymore.
“The millennials that work for me joke they’re terrified of it, too, because they’re going to have to teach me how to actually use a phone.”
With files from Robert Benzie and Rob Ferguson