Why Obama Should Keep His BlackBerry

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on November 17, 2008

The news over the weekend was full of stories about (the AP’s, for example) how Barack Obama will have to give up his beloved BlackBerry once he enters the White house. While I can see why he might choose to, I cannot fathom why he would have to.

The best reason for letting go of of the time-sucking communicator is that the President can’t afford to be reading jokes forwarded by friends and tapping away on a thumb keyboard when there a Free World to run. Maybe, but if he could do it under the pressures of a campaign, I suspect he can handle it under the pressures of office. Even a President must have some downtime, say during interminable motorcades or, like the rest of us, really boring meetings. And Obama has shown himself to be nothing if not disciplined, so there’s no reason to believe he’d let his BlackBerry-ing get in the way of important duties.

Other reasons advanced for making the Oval Office a no BlackBerry zone strike me as specious or based on a misunderstanding of how BlackBerrys work. Yes, anything the President taps out on his BlackBerry is subject to the Presidential Records Act and could become public. So is everything the President scribbles on odd bits of paper. Presidents have to be really careful about what they send in emails, handwritten notes, or diplomatic demarches. Again, it's all about discipline, not technology.

Assuming that the White House has a reasonable BlackBerry setup, record-retention is no issue. A BlackBerry Enterprise Server runs all mail through a Microsoft Exchange or IBM Lotus Domino mail system and BlackBerry messages are retained exactly the same as any other mail. There are also provision for the logging and retention of instant messages, or instant messaging can be be disabled by policy. So can the use of BlackBerry as a voice phone.

The security of wireless messages is always somewhat weaker than messages sent over landlines, simply because they can easily be intercepted. But intercepting a BlackBerry message doesn't get you very far. All BlackBerry traffic is encrypted to standards that meet Federal Information Procession Standards for sensitive but unclassified information. Presumably, the President-elect, now that he is getting daily intelligence reports, has been briefed on the handling of sensitive or classified information.

The silliest reason given for the President having to surrender his BlackBerry is that evil-doers could track its electronic signals and use the information to locate his whereabouts precisely. First, this is actually quite difficult to do if you don't happen to own a cellular network. But more important, the President and his huge entourage move with all the subtlety of the 101 Airborne Division. You don't need a cellphone tracker to tell you where the President is going. Besides, you could always home in on the aides, reporters, and other camp-followers yammering away on their own cell phones.

Obama comes into office as the first President both knowledgeable about and comfortable with the technology that runs today's world. This is actually an important and promising development and the worst thing we can do is try to force him into a technology-free cocoon in the name of security or whatever. Mr President-elect, if you want to keep that BlackBerry, please do so. Besides, we don't want a new President going through his difficult first weeks in office suffering from BlackBerry withdrawal.

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Reader Comments

Sachin Agarwal

November 17, 2008 08:08 PM

The problem is that all information that *comes in* is also subject to disclosure. That's a huge honeypot of inbound e-mail addresses. I'd be very skeptical that someone could make a good argument to redact that information.

john

November 17, 2008 08:11 PM

Right on- not even being president of the United States of America could seperate me from my Blackberry- seriously

Devin Newell

November 17, 2008 08:16 PM

You realize that those communications are going through a 3rd party system that isn't really all that secure when stacked against the importance of matters of state. Honestly, is this article serious?

arenak

November 17, 2008 09:09 PM

Thanks @johnabyrne for pointing me here for a sanity check, b/c when I read the story in the NYT I couldn't believe it. This is the same man that ran his campaign on the Internet, and now he can't use a berry? Insane. We're in 2008. I'm sure any tech issues surrounding security can be ironed out. RIM would be pleased as punch to get right on that for him, I'm sure.

Steve Wildstrom

November 17, 2008 09:12 PM

@Devin Newell--Yes, I am absolutely serious. There's a reason why BlackBerrys are so extensively used in government, health care, and financial services: serious end-to-end encryption and painstaking attention to secure messaging. If you don't believe me, check out the list of security certifications that the BlackBerry has earned.

Krish S.

November 17, 2008 09:15 PM

Mr. Wildstrom, you should get away from this delusional thinking that the President of the United states "runs" the "free world".

Krish S.

November 17, 2008 09:16 PM

Mr. Wildstrom, you should get away from this delusional thinking that the President of the United states "runs" the "free world".

Mark

November 17, 2008 09:25 PM

Seriously? This article is a joke. The author obviously has little knowledge in computer security.

InDC

November 17, 2008 09:51 PM

All FBI agents now have BlackBerries. It was faster, cheaper, and more effective to give them mobile devices than to outfit them with laptops or desktops. Agents have their phone, e-mail, and (limited) web access 24/7. The Secret Service is not as forward thinking when it comes to technology.

"CrackBerries" as a concept, mobile and always on access to information, has become an obvious "must have." So much so that the NSA is working on a device that can access both unclassified and classified data, http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20081107_9172.php.

Now know the Executive Office of the President runs the White House IT systems. They could not recover the lost e-mail messages for the current administration. Imagine that the politicians were telling the truth. Do you think such a shop could offer, or risk having the President or even First Lady rely on them 24/7.

Change needs to happen at many levels in Washington.

Sheryl

November 17, 2008 10:42 PM

Wonder how President-elect Obama will deal with the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms from his CrackBerry addiction? Read a tongue-in-cheek fantasy letter to the President-elect on how to cope (from one addict to another) at http://www.justmypointofview.wordpress.com.

Brian

November 17, 2008 11:28 PM

We need to deeply infuse technology to get things done faster and cheaper. Just like EVERY business in the WORLD does. Anyone want to argue that point?? I've been in IT for 10 years and worked for close to 20 companies. Not ONE of them produced ANYTHING you could physically touch with your hands. We are not a nation of products, but a nation of COMMUNICATIONS.

martha yost

November 17, 2008 11:57 PM

wow...so what happens if he loses it and doesn't notice it's lost while he naps on the plane or something. then matters of state are in the hands of someone who shouldn't have them. You can shut it off, but there is still a lag time. i don't think you thought this scenario all the way through.

Tim

November 18, 2008 12:00 AM

Whenever I'm texting with Barack, he's always careful to not say anything important or embarrassing. I, therefore, feel that his Blackberry usage is just fine.

David

November 18, 2008 12:41 AM

Mark,

to accuse the author of having "little knowledge of computer security" when he has pointed out the level of data encryption present in mobile communications several times is reprehensible, irresponsible and offensive.

Without actually indulging in the merits of the author's claims, the author has shown himself to be knowledgeable in the affairs of mobile data encryption by discussing the use of blackberries by federal employees, and by providing a link to the security certifications that RIM has adhered to. To conclude -- without substantiation -- that the author's article is "a joke" is a cheap, unscholarly bullying tactic.

Angela

November 18, 2008 01:02 AM

Did Bush use a Blackberry?

Angela

November 18, 2008 01:04 AM

I totally agree with Steve Wildstrom. Owning a blackberry can only enhance performance.

Vicki

November 18, 2008 02:08 AM

Um, Martha? If he loses it on the lane? The only plane he'll ever be on is Air Force One. It's not like some businessman is going to pick up the president's Blackberry. (and anything that can "happen" to a Blackberry can happen to a spiral-bound paper notebook.)

Besides, this isn't a neophyte; he's had the thing for how many years? He really does seem to know what he's doing.

Brian has it absolutely right: We need to deeply infuse technology to get things done faster and cheaper.

It's the 21st century and, for the first time, we have a president who really understands what that entails.

We need to ensure that the Blackberry, email, etc, are as much a part of the Executive branch of the Government as they are of the Legislative Branch... and the Nation.

Steve Wildstrom

November 18, 2008 06:24 AM

@Martha--I'm assuming that the President would take the elementary precaution of password-protecting his BlackBerry. That would at least delay anyone who found a lost one from getting to the contents. And in my experience, it takes less than a minute from the time a system administrator is told a BlackBerry has been lost or stolen until it is disabled and the data wiped clean.

Robert

November 18, 2008 09:05 AM

This isn't an accurate article. The debate isn't about the Blackberry, but email.

1. Email to/from BES to Blackberry is secure, but not from mailserver to mailserver. Email is unencrypted by default. Some servers support encryption, and it could be done on client side (PGP, GPG) but that's somewhat on the rare side, and no way for an end user to know about server to server encryption.

2. Email goes through third parties. What those parties do, and who they deal with are unknown. Blackberry especially goes through a third party. You've now got a for profit corporation handling national security. Telco's will do anything for money. Foreign governments may be tempted to try and tap the pipe here.

3. You could limit trouble by restricting email to within a .gov whitelist, but then your reducing the effectiveness. Besides, government has good enough communication systems between offices. The typical issue is bureaucracy .

4. All emails are to be records. That includes incoming ones. This could be problematic for private emails, and the unexpected. Then you have the question of the president violating someone's privacy.

Again, the BlackBerry was never the actual question here, it's email itself. The BlackBerry is just his preferred client. This is akin to saying the president is forbidden from using Gmail.

Ravi Iyer

November 18, 2008 09:37 AM

The DoD has sufficient technology and process controls in place that could easily be adopted by the office of White House communications (if they don't have it in place already) to enable the President to use a mobile device for unclassified communications. Messages classified Secret and Top Secret (different from those marked unclassified) require a different type/class of mobile devices.

I manage a secure messaging product for Motorola that runs on Windows Mobile smartphones. This product is approved by the DoD for use by the Army, Air Force etc. (RIM has a similar product for the Blackberry) - so I know a thing or two about this subject.

Whatever the President's reasons for not using a mobile messaging device, insufficient security technology can't be one of them. And if the office of White House communications identifies gaps in the solutions available today, It can't be too hard to satisfy them.

Kimberly

November 18, 2008 01:31 PM

I love this article! I found the story when released to be the biggest joke I had ever heard. I got a good laugh and moved on. Thanks for showing that I could laugh again at the story.

ed

November 20, 2008 11:49 AM

Thank you very much for your post. Absolutely excellent information and very useful for me. Great done and keep posted. Looking forward to reading more from you.

ms

November 21, 2008 10:11 AM

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122724536331647671.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

Interesting...

camel

November 22, 2008 09:50 PM

i feel that this is the 21st century
I also know that the president has access to the CIA FBI NSA and other security groups...

Are you trying to say that spies are trackable?

I doubt it...

So why can't the Pres have a CIA blackberry?

Jeff Makana

November 24, 2008 07:30 AM

Your Excellency Mr.Obama, keep the blackberry... especially the new one that looks like an Iphone from T-mobile.... He doesn't have to communicate official sensitive information on the device.. but his boys and friends can still BB him... Will go along way in spurring technology innovation and maybe an American can invent a secure data device for future presidentes..

bee

January 20, 2009 04:38 PM

Please keep your blackberry Mr. President.
You were a simple person with great vision.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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