During his campaign and after he was elected president, Barack Obama was praised for a democratic view of the Internet and for issuing in a new era of presidency 2.0. He was tuned into the new media techniques and systems used to connect the country, especially his own supporters. Through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Obama extended his love of immediate connection to the outside world and his own Crackberry habit to the general public.
In fact, Barack Obama was also teased for his BlackBerry obsession, and his proclamation that he simply couldn’t live without it inspired some journalists and advertising professionals to speculate that he would make the ultimate front man for BlackBerry, earning between $25-50 million in endorsements, if he were allowed to accept it.
Unfortunately for Obama, however, security officials started to wonder at the problems having a president with an open e-mail account and Crackberry habit would start, in terms of privacy and national security vulnerability. Rumors swirled that once he was sworn in, Obama would have to give up his BlackBerry cold turkey. But after January 20, Obama was still seen carrying around a BlackBerry, though speculation continued to surround its special security tools, its limitations, Obama’s ability to use it freely, and even which BlackBerry edition Obama was allowed to use. Read on to find out more about the e-mail security and encryption devices that President Obama uses, or probably uses, as well as the different security concerns that have had to be worked out in order to indulge the ultimate BlackBerry user.
E-mail Security and Encryption
These security and encryption tricks and tools are what’s keeping Obama’s e-mail accounts private.
- No IMs: Barack Obama and his aides are not allowed to use any instant messaging features on his BlackBerry. ThinkProgress.org reports that the Presidential Records Act would "likely require the disclosure of instant messages discussing government business," even though the law would have to be revised to include instant messaging.
- Encryption: Because most BlackBerries aren’t designed to protect the secrets of the President of the United States, Obama’s BlackBerry will have to be revamped. Some believe that he is using the Sectera Edge phone, which protects voice conversations, according to Marc Ambinder from The Atlantic.
- Design: It is unclear which model Barack Obama’s new BlackBerry is, but some have guessed that it is either a Sectera Edge–which some argue isn’t technically a BlackBerry since it uses Windows–created by General Dynamics, or a BlackBerry 8830. The Sectera Edge is much more secure and has been "approved by the National Security Agency for sending and receiving classified emails and phone calls." Others believe that Obama is using a BlackBerry 8830, which isn’t typically as secure, but most likely has some sort of special encryption system created just for the president.
- E-mail exclusivity: Even top aides who once regularly e-mailed with Obama no longer have his e-mail address now that he is president. The New York Times reports that only senior adviser David Axelrod, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and press secretary Robert Gibbs, among a few others, have access.
Below is a list of the security concerns Obama’s team has had to address in order to keep the president happy and protected.
- Hackers: Hackers are a very real threat to anyone who has a mobile phone and/or Internet access. Obama’s BlackBerry will almost definitely have to be redesigned in some way in order to circumvent hackers who already have experience breaking into important BlackBerry accounts. The Chicago Tribune reports that "Obama’s new BlackBerry will come with software approved by U.S. intelligence officials, allowing him to communicate with friends, family and close associates without fear of hackers reading his private e-mail."
- Compromises location: Most generic BlackBerries have a GPS system built in to the phones. Obama’s phone may have the GPS feature disabled, since anyone who hacked into the system would be able to find out his exact location, even within the White House.
- Presidential Records Act of 1978: This act requires that any messages or records discussing government business by the president are retained by the National Archives and made available to the public. Obama’s e-mails, phone conversations and possibly even video or photos taken with the BlackBerry would be subjected to scrutiny by the public years later. The PRA was apparently reason enough to deter President George W. Bush from sending private e-mails to his family. E-mails can also be subpoenaed by Congress, and due to the more immediate, "send now, think later" culture of e-mail, past presidents have found electronic messaging too risky.
- Invasion of personal privacy: The concern over Obama’s BlackBerry isn’t just about protecting government security. Any personal messages that Obama sent to Michelle or to other friends and family might be compromised if a hacker broke into the system. Strictly personal messages wouldn’t be included in the National Archives under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, but they could still be released in an illegal hacking.
- E-mail tracking: The more people who receive e-mails from Barack Obama, the more people the Secret Service and other government and security officials need to track to ensure that they don’t purposefully or accidentally pass along Obama’s address. They could be contacted, exploited and blackmailed by hackers, or inadvertently forward an e-mail that had Obama’s information attached to it, releasing it into the public domain.
- IT administrators: LuxSci FYI points out that although e-mails sent and received from Obama himself "can be encrypted in transit to and from the BlackBerry enterprise servers (BES), the messages themselves would still be saved in an insecure and unencrypted form on the server and when they were sent out into the Internet at large." The Secret Service would have to ensure that IT administrators working with Obama’s account had proper security clearance.
- Physical vulnerability: Obama’s BlackBerry is vulnerable to physical damage and theft. If Obama drops and breaks his BlackBerry, like he did here, security officials would have to scramble to make sure every single part of the phone is found and apprehended. If the right piece got into the wrong hands, Obama’s phone would be compromised. Another physical vulnerability is theft. While Obama isn’t likely to leave his BlackBerry in a hotel or on a restaurant table, there is still a possibility that it could be lost, and security officials may have wanted to remove this threat altogether by refusing to let Obama even have a BlackBerry.
- Browser security: The BlackBerry Browser lets users save bookmarks, set up RSS feeds, shop online, stream videos and music, and get fast Internet service. Obama’s browser, however, would have to include security add-ons to prevent anyone from tracking his IP address or hacking into the browser to gain access to the rest of his messages and information.