Obama: Hang on to the BlackBerry

Security concerns notwithstanding, Barack Obama is right to keep his trusty BlackBerry as he assumes his responsibilities as President. Pro or con?

Pro: Rewards Outweigh Risks

The thought of our nation’s chief executive having to go without his BlackBerry (RIMM) is ludicrous. E-mail and other mobile and social media tools were essential parts of Obama’s Presidential campaign. He shouldn’t have to give up the very technology that helped him recruit record numbers of Americans into the political process and kept him connected with key advisers, constituents, and current events.

While there are security concerns around the use of e-mail, it’s also a fundamental component of how Obama is perceived by many Americans—as a person who drives change and is open to direct communication with the people he represents.

The information security, physical security, and regulatory issues used as arguments against Obama’s continued use of the BlackBerry can be overcome.

It’s feared that messages might be intercepted or the device could be lost or hacked. While the BlackBerry itself apparently isn’t secure enough for the National Security Agency, there are NSA-approved alternatives that offer similar functionality with enough security to allow e-mailing of classified information.

It’s true that mobile devices can go missing—Proofpoint’s own research found that 27% of U.S companies investigated a data breach due to such a loss or theft. But most mobile professionals aren’t surrounded by Secret Service agents who ensure the security of the President and his personal effects.

Past presidents have relinquished the use of e-mail so that such communications wouldn’t have to be preserved as required by the Presidential Records Act. But, in the spirit of change and openness that Obama represents, the new Administration should adopt clear e-mail archiving policies and deploy technology to enforce them, in marked contrast to the previous Administration.

Con: Land of the BlackBerry-Free

If it were up to me, America would be a BlackBerry-free zone. Why not start with the Oval Office?

Obama’s reliance on his Blackberry could leave him vulnerable both to hackers and to legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which could render all of his e-mail correspondence public.

Despite such concerns, Obama remains reluctant to relinquish his trusty device, insisting that it will help to stave off the White House “bubble.” In reality, it is the BlackBerry addicts of the world who often suffer the most extreme isolation. A 2008 work-life study from Sheraton Hotels & Resorts showed that 35% of traveling business executives preferred their PDAs over their spouses. While the Presidency is a fundamentally isolating experience, the BlackBerry is not the appropriate remedy.

Some may argue that the BlackBerry has done for Obama what the TV did for JFK, but I am hesitant to credit this technology with Obama’s remarkable achievements. His 3 a.m. e-mail blasts may have won the hearts of many during the campaign, but the campaign is over. From now on, we need a President who communicates thoughtfully rather than constantly. Nine a.m. will do just fine.

Obama has the potential to be remembered as one of the great Presidents—on a par with Lincoln, FDR, and JFK—all of whom managed to connect with Americans long before the “CrackBerry” came into existence. We elected Obama because he was the most capable candidate, not because he was the most wired candidate. Let’s not let the medium overshadow the message.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Bill Carlin

Tory, you are a true Luddite and your perception of the Blackberry is outdated by about five years. Sure, Blackberry was first only used by the diehard e-mail users and spawned the Crackberry nickname, but there is no arguing that it is a mainstream phone today used by students, grandmothers, and blue-collar, white-collar and every other category of people in America. Some use it constantly, but most use it in moderation just like every other convenience that modern technology affords us. The comment about traveling executives preferring PDA over their spouses is lame and simply points to the fact that more than half of all marriages still fail (which is hardly the fault of the tech industry). It is an insult to suggest that President Obama or the average American can't enjoy a modern day phone without becoming obsessed with it beyond all reason, and I suspect it is more a reflection of your shortcomings rather than the masses or the President. Life is not binary, my friend.

And Gary, sorry but the NSA-approved alternatives for classified materials don't address the security issues in question with respect to use by a President either. The only option is for the President to use discretion in his communications (regardless of whether it is over a Blackberry or a phone or a PC or in person), and he is clearly capable of such self control and personal judgment. The lawyers will always tell you why you shouldn't do something. Life is risk. There is no way around it for most people and especially for a President.

Andrew Duchesne

I'm not going to get that technical in my answer, but there is no security in anything. If we created it, we can break it and hack it. So just be careful with it, Mr.Obama, and enjoy it, be connected to the people, and use your BlackBerry wisely for the good of the nation.
Andrew
http://blackberryunderground.com

Melissa

No, he shouldn't keep it. Security is the number one concern, and there is no security with any cell phones.

http://www.blog.zooloo.com

Alora

I find there to be something ludicrous about this debate: We would never question a CEO with a Blackberry. And, in fact, depending on your industry, you'd question a CEO who didn't have one. Government is notorious for being behind the times. We finally have a President who understands and is ready to leverage some of the best potential in an Information Age-driven world. The idea that we should ever suggest that he give it up is absurd. Too much of this nation's economy is driven by technology innovation to continue to have leaders who not only do not understand the solutions, but also couldn't pick them out of a line-up. Let the man keep the tools that he is comfortable with and make him feel more efficient. The idea that the Blackberry is any less secure than a hundred other things he could do or use is insane, like Andrew says. He has a lot of work to do. Eliminating the tools that make him feel productive is hardly a good way to get started.

Rufio

Hey Bill,

First of all I wouldn't call Blackberry mainstream. They're still on the higher end at the cell phone store display shelf (when was the last time you saw mobile giving away a free Blackberry with a phone plan?). RIM has started to try to crack into the retail consumer market with phones like the Pearl and storm and bold. And yet every Blackberry is still compared to the iPhone.

The point of Tory's article was not to berate the Crackberry as some social ill, but simply to point out that the President of the United States does not need to have a blackberry. He has the attention of the world whenever he wants it, so much more so than when he was simply a candidate. He still has the White House Web site (which is totally revamped--check it out) to communicate and oh yeah, there's that thing called a TV, which I'm sure more people own than Blackberry.

So lay off, Bill, and stop trying to sound smart by belittling the authors who make valid points. (We now all know you love your Blackberry.)

Bob

Why is the President sending all his e-mail to Canada? If you know anything about the way a BlackBerry works, you'd know all of the e-mail on a BlackBerry is sent over the border to BlackBerry servers sitting in Canada under the control of a company called Research in Motion.

I love the Canadians. They've given us Neil Young, Mike Myers, and Celine Dion, but I'm not sure I want my President's e-mails being managed by a company in Canada.

President Obama: Pick your phone up, dust it off, toss it in the trash, and start keeping your e-mail here in the U.S. on servers the federal government owns and controls.

Ray

Bob, e-mails traveling over the Internet routinely cross borders, and the federal government does not own or control it. Real security comes from the encryption and the overall system design. The bottom line is that BlackBerry has the best available security in the world, at least for commercial products, and that is why big companies and governments use it. And your e-mail isn't stored on Canadian servers. Your e-mail stays on your own server behind your own firewall and under your control. I just read an article that said over 500,000 U.S. government workers use BlackBerrys. Do you really think it would be that widely used without having passed the security tests of the NSA? Now, maybe the President needs something different than everyone in Congress and the rest of the government ranks--I really don't know--but we should keep our facts straight about security.

Bob

Other Bob, I agree. U.S.-based servers owned, secured, and controlled by the federal government with U.S. companies like Microsoft. Why not a Windows Mobile PDA instead? He already uses a Zune.

Bob

Ray, my point is not that data passes over wires; it's that the messages are stored on servers sitting outside of the control of the U.S. government, even if only for short amounts of time.

With all due respect to our Canadian brethren, it's obviously not secure enough given the debate over his keeping it or not.

Re the, "Well, I read 500k people use it, therefore it must meet NSA requirements" this CNET article appears to show that is not the case: "While Research In Motion offers encryption, the U.S. government has stricter requirements for communications security. Without more details, I would have to say that putting sensitive or classified information on a BlackBerry is a risky proposition," said Greg Shipley, chief technology officer at Neohapsis, a governance, risk, and compliance consultancy." ( http://tinyurl.com/8rc4ar)

And like my mother taught me when I was little, "if all your friends jumped off the bridge, would you?"

Once again, for my President, I'd prefer he didn't use a phone that sent his messages outside the U.S. border.

Ray

Bob, Internet traffic, including your e-mail, crosses borders all the time without your awareness. That is the nature of routing over the Internet. In any case, the question of borders is largely irrelevant to the issue. If the encryption is proper, then the routing of the message doesn't matter because no one can break the encryption. If you don't have faith in the encryption, then you can't trust it within the U.S. border either (there are evildoers within the country, too).

I don't agree that the ongoing debate means that it's not secure enough--and the President continues to use BlackBerry today, so that is a pretty good indication that security isn't the main concern. The main concern is the Freedom of Information Act. In fact, the main concern is about e-mail, not BlackBerry specifically. The lawyers believe that every e-mail will have to be open to the public eventually and that spells risk of lawsuits and potential embarrassment. That is the exact stated reason that the last two Presidents gave as to why wouldn't use e-mail while in office.

Regarding the NSA comment: That is fact, not my conjecture. The CTO you quoted admits that he doesn't have the details. And he's talking about classified information. The reality is that classified information shouldn't be sent to any wireless phone, but that isn't what the President claims to want to use it for, so my point remains. You have to trust the President to use proper discretion in his communications, regardless of whether he uses a BlackBerry.

And with all due respect to your mother, my point wasn't that he should do it because all the cool kids are doing it.

For my President, I'd prefer that he have whatever sources of outside contact he feels appropriate to keep himself grounded in reality and if BlackBerry helps him do that, then I'm in favor. I'm sure he can live within whatever rules of use that he negotiates with the lawyers in D.C. With respect to the security requirements, I wouldn't get any false sense of security just because something is a domestic product (which is probably built in Asia anyway). I evaluated and recommended BlackBerry against others for my company, and so maybe I'm biased, but the FBI uses BlackBerry and that's should be good enough for anyone. Check out this info straight from the FBI's web site: http://www.fbi.gov/hq/ocio/blackberry103108.htm

Ray

Check it out - the FBI has deployed 20,000 BlackBerrys.
http://www.fbi.gov/hq/ocio/blackberry103108.htm

Blackberry Deployment
Overview:
In 2007, the FBI’s Information and Technology Branch (ITB) spearheaded the effort to consolidate and modernize mobile communications devices throughout the Bureau. The FBI had a multitude of mobile communications devices provided by various vendors with decentralized management throughout the FBI Headquarters, including field offices (FO) and Legal Attachés.

An enterprise-wide, centrally managed contract was established for the Verizon Wireless BlackBerry™ Smartphone devices. This was the largest one-time BlackBerry deployment ever undertaken by any government agency. Pager and mobile telephone budgets at the FOs were consolidated and centralized at FBI Headquarters to help fund the program.

The deployment of the BlackBerry devices supported the development and implementation of incredible technology advancements within the FBI. The capabilities of the antiquated pagers and mobile telephones pale in comparison to the enhanced capabilities of the BlackBerry devices.

For the first time, authorized users can access their unclassified e-mail, the National Crime Information Center, ChoicePoint, LexisNexis, Departments of Motor Vehicles, GoogleMaps™, the FBI's Top 10 Most Wanted, and the Internet on a wireless mobile communications device. Not only have these devices revolutionized the FBI’s mobility in the field and unchained critical field-operational individuals from their desks, offices, and workstations, it has allowed the FBI to leverage economy of scale, centralized management, and realize significant cost savings.

Status of Project:

The ITB completed the enterprise-wide deployment of more than 21,559 BlackBerry devices to FBI Headquarters and FOs thus far, and met or exceeded all milestones set for the project. The BlackBerry operates within a secure, Sensitive But Unclassified environment protected from compromise. It provides technologically advanced mobile communications capabilities with access to multiple mission-critical data sources to Special Agents and professional support staff throughout the FBI. It also enables FBI personnel to share information directly with informants, squad members, Headquarters, and task force members from other federal, state, local, and tribal partners.

The Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment, Ambassador Thomas McNamara, praised the pilot project predecessor to the BlackBerry deployment before Congress in June 2008, when he testified: “One example of improving sharing practices in the federal government is the FBI’s initiative to equip field agents with personal digital assistants to provide wireless access to a wide range of Sensitive But Unclassified terrorist-related information, including watchlists.”

kelly p

He needs to throw it away and get a Bible. He will not need a BlackBerry to communicate with the only one who can help us now.

sam

Ted Kennedy is dying from a cell-phone-induced brain tumor. Using a cell phone scrambles your brain. Obama more than anyone needs to think clearly now. No Blackberry.

Bob

Ray, as you point out, this is only for "authorized users can access their unclassified e-mail,"--get it? Unclassified e-mail, whoop-de-do.

We're talking the President of the United States, and my guess is he deals with more than simple messages like "honey pick up some milk," and therefore needs something that is secure enough for Presidential use.

Thanks for the FBI article. It definitely proves the point that Obama needs something better.

Keith Taylor

I think Obama should keep the Blackberry:

• It gets him out of the bubble.

• He has the discipline to not use it for secure communications.

• Give him a number on that sensitive but unclassified FBI system, to fend off the Bozos.

Jason

Hmmm. The FBI using BlackBerry for "sensitive but unclassified terrorist-related information" doesn't quite sound the same as "honey pick up some milk," to me. In any case, this conversation has become irrelevant. They already announced that the President is keeping his BlackBerry and that the White House IT department uses their own special encryption with the BlackBerry OS. I don't think they will be sending missile codes via BlackBerry anyway, but it's good to see a tech-savvy President and administration in the White House. I saw a report today that his staff found six-year-old PCs and software in the office. It sounds like the Bush staff was very old school. A modern-day President needs modern-day tech tools and a team that isn't scared to keep up with the changes.

Nate

The more I think about this issue, the more I land on the con side.

I am not concerned about this from the security standpoint as much as I am from the, well, I guess you would have to call it the "intellectual" standpoint.

Transparency in government is good. Indeed, I believe it to be one of the most fundamental things a government can provide to make sure it is being held accountable to its people. I believe this is what President Obama wants to promote most through the use of a BlackBerry, along with the notion that technology should be utilized more strongly.

But I'm not sure the BlackBerry is the best way to do this.

Moreover, I want the President of the United States focused on the task at hand--not on the blinking light telling him he's got a new text message.

Most people I know who are BlackBerry addicts are scatterbrained. Some of them are brilliant to be sure, and some can operate just fine--knowing when to pay attention to it and not. But I for one would like to know for certain that, at a time as turbulent as this, the big issues have 117% of our Commander in Chief's attention.

I voted for President Obama. But I'll finish with a phrase I was fond of using during the the last eight years--"blind faith in bad leadership is not patriotism." I am not above saying that President Obama won't make his fair share of mistakes.

Squeezebox

Let's compromise. The BlackBerry is great for keeping calendars, taking notes, and composing e-mails, but let the Secret Service take the back off and short out the GPS, Internet, and cell phone functions. That way nobody can track him and nobody can snoop. He can still dock the thing with his PC when he gets back to the office and send his e-mails (and make his phone calls) from there.

Gopher

Jason, I'm intrigued by your references "the White House IT department uses their own special encryption with the BlackBerry OS." Can you point to the source for your comment? I'd be very interested in understanding how to make BlackBerrys more secure.
Thank you.

Me myself

So Bush had six-year-old computers? In an economy like ours, everyone has to tighten up--clearly those computers weren't the most critical to secret operations. Good for them; they don't have to spend money for the latest and greatest all the time, and neither do we.

No matter what Obama does technology-wise, secrets will come out. How many "anonymous source" news stories leak from business and government officials? How will you control people?

SC in Southern California

Sam, please note that when an e-mail is composed on a smart phone, one does not place it near their head. A message is typically composed away, at arms length, and no different than writing a note on a yellow pad, then sticking it in the mail. Only it's transmitted in seconds, assuming all connections are working. As far as security, Obama doesn't need to reply or use his phone on sensitive material. Please, he's smarter than that. Government computers (not the ones that Bush had in the White House--that's what you call truly not connected) are so secure that they can't send PDF files, so I'm sure Obama will exercise caution, and those sending to his Blackberry will not send sensitive or classified e-mails. At least it allows him the opportunity to communicate with his family that he won't get to see too often. When his daughters want to send a "hi," and tell him about the concert or speech they gave that he had to miss, this will give him the smile he deserves from a hard week of dealing with foreign leaders. Imagine trying to hook up with his family now. Regarding security concerns: We have smart people in the government, and they know security. And Obama knows what should be transmitted and what shouldn't. He's not defiant. At least he knows how to be connected. And this is coming from someone who's been a Republican for 32 years).

Mark

I hope the new President will turn the nation toward socialism and get rid of criminalism, which is the core of this nation, and start to clean up its criminal culture and its dirty image.

Jen Jen <3 <3

Why won't you people act your age? BlackBerrys are kick ass.

Pancho

Obama rocks.

Teisha

I, too, agree that this article is absurd. I don't see what the big deal is with our President being up on technology and using it to stay connected with the people. Obama is the first President (in my time) who has showed this much compassion for his people. He is a very smart person, and like someone mentioned earlier, people created the BlackBerry, therefore they can hack into it whenever--and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. We have the perfect President, and there is nothing wrong with him staying in tuned in what is going on. We love you, Obama.

Yo Momma

Word.

LAURA

I think he should be able to keep his BlackBerry. I mean, why not? As long as he is not using it for work-related business, then leave the man as he has too much on his plate every day to be bothered by a cell phone.

M0haMMeD AL-ShaFeI

Mr. Obama is a nice man, and he can do everything.

Another John

It's a new day people, and we should be thanking our lucky stars for a President that wants to take us far into the 21st century and not back into a cave. Living is a risky business. Here we have a man that fully understands that and yet is willing to navigate his way, and do so on our behalf while taking on the naysayers that he knows eagerly await the moment that could cause him to stumble, heaven forbid that he should fall. No, I don't believe him to be Messiah. I believe he is just a man having the courage, and most important the willingness, to show other men, "Yes, you can!"

Join the Debate

 

Participate More!

Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!