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January 22nd, 2009
12:49 PM ET

Barack gets a superduper BlackBerry

David Gewirtz | BIO
Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Publishing

Say you work for a new boss and want to keep your job. Now, say your new boss is the first-day-on-the-job President of the United States. Now, let's say your boss, the President, tells you that not only are you not going to take his BlackBerry from him, you're going to find a way to make sure he can keep it. What do you do? What do you do?

This was apparently the challenge facing someone in the incoming administration. We're talking about a serious security issue here, so details are sketchy at best. As you probably know, President Barack Obama has wanted to keep his beloved BlackBerry, but there were all sorts of security issues involved.

The "blogosphere" is on high-alert, reporting that Obama will get to keep his BlackBerry for standard messaging, but a "asuper-encryption package" has been added to the President's device. Stories also imply that Mr. Obama may use the super-spooky National Dynamics Sectera Edge for official business.

Let's be clear that this is un-sourced. No one I've spoken to in the security hierarchy has provided any further information and, honestly, if they did, I'm not sure it'd be prudent to pass it on.

But obviously this is an interesting story because President Obama may be the most technically savvy president we've yet seen. It's also an interesting story because it shows how viral news spreads. The story originally appeared in a well-respected blog, but with no supporting information, no official statement, and no details.

It was, basically, hearsay. But now, if you read many of the news reports online, including from well-respected tech and media sources, most articles simply state "Obama to keep his BlackBerry" or cite the Sectera device, but rarely mention that there's been no official statement to this effect. They simply cite the original, unverified story.

From a journalistic point of view, this level of unsupported news reporting is somewhat troubling, especially as we strive for more accuracy and accountability in our government.

That said, how feasible is it to add security upgrades to a BlackBerry? The fact is, it's definitely possible to add some increased tech to an off-the-shelf BlackBerry.

The BlackBerry Solutions Catalog lists a number of very capable security add-ons for BlackBerrys, including public-key and symmetric encryption, anti-theft management, along with secure email extensions that would allow the President to send an encrypted message to someone, even if they don't have special software at the other end.

Some members of the tech community have argued that one of the bigger risks of the President sending email is the potential for spoofing. That is, someone who is not Mr. Obama could send a message that looks like it's genuinely from the President that might contain misleading or dangerous information.

This, too, could be overcome with digital "signing" technology. This technology would allow the President to attach a digital signature to any message sent that would provide virtually fool-proof verification that it, indeed, did come from him.

Still, there are issues and benefits to President Obama's continued use of his BlackBerry. We've never had a fully-connected president before. No president before has been able, at an instant - and without involving any support staff - just pop out on the Web and see what's happening, send a note, or get a note from a trusted friend.

We've long been concerned that our presidents live in a bubble that skews their perspective of what's happening in the "real" world. If the rumor is true and Barack does keep his BlackBerry, the Presidential bubble will be broken, at least digitally.

If his tech experts keep a disciplined watch on the overall messaging system that includes President Obama's BlackBerry, a lot of good can come from having a connected President.

Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Magazines, including OutlookPower Magazine. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.

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Filed under: David Gewirtz • President Barack Obama • Technology
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Jesse Newton

    Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did confirm this afternoon that the device in use by President Obama is, in fact, a BlackBerry. Albeit one with some beefed up security.

    "The President has a BlackBerry through a compromise that allows him to stay in touch with senior staff and a small group of personal friends in a way that use will be limited and the security is enhanced to ensure his ability to communicate, but to do so effectively and to do so in a way that's protected."

    So much for the Sectéra Edge

    January 22, 2009 at 6:45 pm |
  2. Catrina Teach, NC

    He needs to keep up with the times.

    January 22, 2009 at 6:03 pm |
  3. Michael Chakraborty

    This shows a real commitment, and it will bring increased awareness and result. My words are not enough to express how intelligent and far sighted our president is.

    Results come from actions and these constructive thoughts are the most viable seeds for sprouting action.

    January 22, 2009 at 5:33 pm |
  4. successfulstaffing

    I'm sure we'll see the government pick up the pace on technology now that Obama is in office and it's about time. It seems the government never wants to get rid of the paper.

    January 22, 2009 at 4:33 pm |
  5. Isabel, RJ, Brazil

    After all, what the current Presidential smartphone?

    Apart from issues involving security, spoofing and others, can not forget that the devices in cell phones are traceable, and no specialist would this vulnerability for President Obama.

    It is speculated that the Sectes Edge, from General Dynamics, will be the presidential smartphone. The mobile holds secret voice conversations, and emails and websites. Through three interchangeable ways, it works in Wi-Fi networks, GSM or CDMA, is evidence of dust and water resistant to falling and over one meter in height.
    Sectes The Edge is not a blackberry, the design is quite square (and ugly!), but I believe that Obama has met their needs.

    If I were indicate a smartphone to 'my friend' Obama, I still remain in defense of HTC, despite the impression that the blackberry is national passion (in USA) or am I wrong?
    The HTC Touch Pro is one of the best (if not the best) of the smartphone today. It is a device for heavy-users even those who exploit the most of resources and want to pursue advanced functions when they are away from their desktops.

    Obama, HTC Touch Pro would be the tip of the Brazilian girl here.

    Anderson Cooper, in Gaza, you would have had many facilities if you are using the Touch Pro. I don't resist to indicate the HTC!

    January 22, 2009 at 4:21 pm |
  6. Rick

    Let him keep the Blackberry. And let's get an IMAC on his desk too! Break all of the bubbles so he can operate like a modern day leader. Naturally placing securities in place are necessary, but do what has to be done so this new president can "stay connected" with America AND the rest of world. Faster communications with other parts of the world can ONLY help especially with todays challenges.

    January 22, 2009 at 3:49 pm |
  7. Yaakub (formerly Yaakov) Sullivan

    What Black Berry? Special for obama? This is racist. Why nor White Berry? Nonsense. There are many israelis who don't want us to sleak about peace. Rhey try to humiliate us by making us irrelevant. As an intellectual i am always amazed why israeli and Palestinian gay organization can not find a solution to the problem. There is also a lack of cooperation on organizing a gay parade in Ramallah. Some "reasonable" people say it is in possible. I ask you how the election of a first black president in racist America is possible? Yes we can and we will!

    January 22, 2009 at 2:32 pm |
  8. Larry

    Well, if it can be encrypted then there must be people who know how to decrypt it.

    January 22, 2009 at 2:26 pm |
  9. Amanda Walton--Ontario Canada

    I'd be sorely disappointed if they took away the Presidents' blackberry. President Obama is helping continue to fuel the technology industry as they improve their security features, keeps people in jobs and the future moving forward.

    Don't be like our Canadian government who's afraid to even get dated with using social networking to their advantage. A little here and a little there but not utilizing it to the full advantage that it is to reach out to the people. I wonder why, how much does the Canadian government have to hide and afraid we'll find out if they update their technology usage. Don't have to worry about that, just hook up Prime Minister Harper to a mic, he'll forget it's there and then give away George W. Bush secret phone calls with him by announcing it to the world.

    Now that's scary, somebody get a security feature on the Canadian Prime Minister, like a zipper across his mouth

    January 22, 2009 at 2:24 pm |
  10. Heather,ca

    Does he get BlackBerry thumb protection with that?

    January 22, 2009 at 1:42 pm |
  11. JC- Los Angeles

    I'm hopeful President Obama will hold off on sending e-mails from his Blackberry to his publisher about new book deals and seven figure book advances and start focusing on turning around our morally bankrupt nation.

    January 22, 2009 at 1:38 pm |
  12. Byron Horton

    Mr Cooper. I've noticed that many of the reporters have a tendency to Address the President by Mr. Obama instead of President Obama. I don't mean to be extra sensitive, but I don,t remember as many reporters calling Preident Bush by Mr Bush. I just think that journalist are supposed to be biased and regardless of whether or not they like or agree with the choice he is still all our President and should be respected and addressed as such.

    January 22, 2009 at 1:10 pm |
  13. Michelle

    President 2.o rocks. I would love to hear
    more about this device. Is it a special type
    of I-phone or something else? i have always
    wondered was there not technology that exist
    for this purpose that would allow President Obama
    to keep the blackberry.

    January 22, 2009 at 1:08 pm |
  14. Cindy

    Well I hope that this super encryption package that they added to Obama's Blackberry actually works and keeps others from not being able to get what he is sending out. If he just used it for personal use then that wouldn't matter as much but if he is doing business on it then that is another thing all together. We can't have our business spread all over the world.

    I just wonder does he really need a Blackberry for business seeing that there is no 100% sure fire way to know if someone can get into his account and into all of the nations business.

    Cindy...Ga.

    January 22, 2009 at 1:02 pm |