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Obama, BlackBerrys, and Secure Communications

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on January 22, 2009

News coverage of the fate of President Barack Obama’s BlackBerry has generated a lot more heat than light. What seemed the most definitive word, an Atlantic blog post by Marc Ambinder, only deepened the confusion with gobbledegook about a BlackBerry “superencryption package.”

I don’t know if the President will keep his beloved BlackBerry or not, but I can cut through some of the confusion. U.S. government rules make a bright-line distinction between classified and unclassified communications, with the latter being subject to a set of complex and rigid requirements, many of them themselves classified. Any off-the-shelf BlackBerry, however, has U.S. government approval for the most secure level of unclassified communications, “sensitive but unclassified.” You can find an extensive discussion of BlackBerry’s security certification on the Research In Motion Web site.

The fight over whether Obama should keep a BlackBerry almost certainly has more to do with his staff's desire to control the flow of Presidential communications (the more things change...)than security. Many Bush White House staffers cleared for classified information carried BlackBerrys and they just had to know what they could and could not use them for; the same would be true of Obama.

But the new President does have an option for classified wireless communications. It's called the Sectera Edge Secure Mobile Environment Portable Device and while it has been treated as something of a mystery (Ambinder erroneously says it can only be used for classified voice communications)and great deal of information, including a full spec sheet (PDF), is available on the General Dynamics Web site.

The Sectera Edge is a Windows Mobile (the spec sheet does not specify the version, but the photos look like WinMo 5) device designed to provide both standard and secure voice communication, as well as data communications over both the public Internet and the government's SIPRNET and NIPRNET networks.

I doubt, however, that the President will actually carry a Sectera Edge, unless he trades his trim Hart Schaffner Marx suits for cargo pants or a battle dress uniform. The device is 5-in. long,. nearly an inch and a half thick, and weighs 12 oz. The cost to the government starts at a stiff $2,650. That's about as much as 10 BlackBerrys, but not too bad in the land of $700 toilet seats.

The bulkiness of the Sectera Edge helps explain why the notion of a super BlackBerry seems to be a myth. The approval of a device for classified communications requires detailed qualification of both the hardware and the software. Requirements include special tamper-proof chips designed to prevent reverse engineering of secret details and electronic countermeasures designed to hinder sophisticated eavesdropping on communications before encryption or after decryption. There's no way to build these features into existing hardware without extensive re-engineering--and a very long approval process.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. 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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