January 12, 2009
The High Security Risk Attached to Obama’s Belt

Why can’t the most powerful person in the world keep his BlackBerry?

President-elect Barack Obama, who will take the oath of office next week, has repeatedly acknowledged a strong attachment to his Verizon BlackBerry 8830 World Edition smartphone, a k a the BarackBerry. But in an interview last week, Mr. Obama lamented that the Secret Service and his lawyers appeared to be winning the battle to deny him this electronic link to friends, family and news of the larger world.

“I’m still clinging to my BlackBerry,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ll win.”

No doubt millions of e-mail-addicted thumb jockeys can sympathize. But there are several compelling reasons to separate Mr. Obama from his beloved device.

The first is security. Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, boasts that its devices and network were designed from the bottom up to protect the data that passes through them.

When companies (or the White House) install R.I.M. servers on their internal e-mail networks, their employees’ BlackBerry messages are heavily encrypted before they are sent to one of R.I.M.’s network operations centers and passed on to other devices or networks.

This means that if someone were to intercept a message, it would be virtually impossible to unscramble the contents, R.I.M. says.

The F.B.I. feels comfortable enough with the technology to give BlackBerrys to its employees, although it does not allow agents to transmit classified information over them. TheNational Security Agency, which is responsible for evaluating device security, said last week that nobody was available to discuss whether it had approved the use of BlackBerrys to send classified military information.

But Mr. Obama would be an extraordinarily juicy target for hackers, spies and other snoops who could try to exploit any kind of error made in configuring the device or the White House BlackBerry server to read Mr. Obama’s e-mail.

Bruce Schneier, an expert on encryption and security, does not believe that the security systems at R.I.M. — or at any other company — are completely safe, because of the inherent limitations of the humans who design and use them. “If the BlackBerry was completely secure, it would be the first time in the history of mankind,” Mr. Schneier said.

Then there’s the question of whether Mr. Obama’s BlackBerry could give away his location — perhaps to people trying to harm him. Every mobile phone continuously contacts the nearby towers in its wireless network when it is turned on, so that calls and data can be routed to the phone.

It is technically possible that someone with access to a cellphone company’s systems could use those contacts to roughly track Mr. Obama’s movements, although this would not be easy.

Of course presidents, with their large entourages, do not move about with much secrecy anyway. The biggest security vulnerability of the BlackBerry — and of any technology, for that matter — may be the people who use and administer it.

Mr. Obama is unlikely to leave his BlackBerry in a taxi or choose “Michelle” as his password. (And even if he lost the device, it could be remotely shut down and erased.) But with so much interest in the president-elect and his communications, privacy invaders would be poised to capitalize on any security slip.

The president-elect’s next set of BlackBerry naysayers are the pesky lawyers, who worry that Mr. Obama’s impromptu thumb-tapped conversations could become subject to legal battles.

Lawmakers, historians and open government groups routinely request all presidential communications under federal laws like the Freedom of Information Act. Under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, administrations are required to turn over their communications to public archivists, who make them public starting five years after the end of a president’s final term.

The Bush administration made a novel effort to avoid disclosure by using Republic National Committee e-mail accounts for some of its communications, which a judge in Washington recently called an “apparently flagrant violation of the Presidential Records Act.”

Since Richard Nixon and his infamous tapes, all presidents have argued for their right to withhold some governmental communication under the mantle of executive privilege, and have resisted disclosure of their personal and political correspondence.

But these privacy claims can be hotly disputed, and judges may decide them on a message-by-message basis.

“In this day of inevitable investigations, any time you have written documentation of what the president is saying on any particular subject, then in that investigation, these records may be requested and could be obtained,” said Elizabeth A. McNamara, a lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine in New York. “Then you’ve got the president in the thick of it.”

All this bodes rather poorly for the president-elect’s continued relationship with his BlackBerry, but perhaps that is not so bad. After all, do we really want the leader of the free world taking time off from the problems of climate change and economic collapse to manage his spam, or play a quick game of BrickBreaker?

Then there is the fashion concern. Mr. Obama is known to sport his BlackBerry in a holster on his belt, which to many is the sartorial equivalent of wearing socks with sandals. Ridding the president of the phone could avoid legitimizing that look.

The BlackBerry no doubt endears Mr. Obama to one element of his core constituency: hard-working, tech-obsessed professionals whose fingers are painfully cramped from trying to type on small keys. In a sense, then, the BlackBerry is no different from the accessories that other presidents used to help them relate to their political base, like Ronald Reagan’s cowboy hats and jeans.

But those fashion statements seem less risky than a BlackBerry; it’s harder to hack pants.

Ian Austen and Jonathan Glater contributed reporting.