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.