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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 23, 2009

President will keep his BlackBerry

By Christi Parsons and Jim Puzzanghera
Los Angeles Times

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

President Obama's smartphone features anti-hacker upgrades. His e-mail address? Don't ask.

Associated Press library photo

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WASHINGTON He says he kicked his nicotine habit on the way to the White House, but President Obama still has the BlackBerry jones.

After once vowing that the Secret Service would have to pry the device out of his hands, Obama now has agreed to an arrangement that lets him hang on to the device despite the concerns of his security advisers.

Obama's new BlackBerry will come with software approved by U.S. intelligence officials, aimed at allowing him to communicate with friends, family and close associates without fear of hackers reading his private e-mail.

But given the issues it raises of public access to presidential correspondence, Obama's decision to keep the device also underscores his devotion to technology.

Former President George W. Bush gave up personal e-mail upon entering office, fearing he would create a public record with every touch of the "send" button. Bill Clinton has been reported to avoid e-mail even today.

"With all due respect to Presidents Clinton and Bush, they didn't really grow up with these mobile devices," said Roger Entner, a telecommunications analyst with the Nielsen Co. "President Obama is like so many others of his generation: This is the device that helps determine how he perceives the rest of the world."

In that sense, e-mail could preserve for Obama some of what his job automatically precludes: direct contact with the workaday world.

Even if he won't be scanning his own groceries or buying his own milk Bush was portrayed as out of touch with those markers of American life he may be in casual contact with friends who are.

And he'll be doing so as millions speculated that security concerns might force the president to adopt another brand of smartphone, such as those used by intelligence agencies. White House officials did not clarify which manufacturer's device Obama would use.


BlackBerrys run on a closed network with an encryption function. About 21,000 FBI agents and employees use BlackBerrys to share sensitive, but unclassified, information.

Still, hackers can plant malicious software on a BlackBerry from afar. One existing piece of software can transform the device into a mini-radio receiver, allowing eavesdroppers to hear any conversations near it.

Another can detect the phone's location by way of signals it sends to nearby cellular towers, turning it into a homing device.

According to a database maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, at least 16 potential chinks in the BlackBerry's security armor have come to light since 2004.

"Of course, the president's location is usually fairly publicly known. He's within the White House or a building," said John Pescatore, vice president for Internet security at research firm Gartner Inc.

"However, somebody could have the ability to figure out (that) he's on this floor or that floor," said Pescatore, who worked on communications security for the Secret Service in the early 1980s.

Ultimately, the biggest concern may not be someone hacking into Obama's BlackBerry but targeting the devices of people with whom he's communicating, said Johannes Ullrich, chief research officer for the SANS Technology Institute in Bethesda, Md., which trains network security and system administrators.

Obama probably would not lose his BlackBerry, with dozens of Secret Service agents around to keep an eye on it. But if one of his e-mail correspondents lost his or her device, agents would not be there to scoop it up.


Security concerns are not the only consideration for Obama. Work-related communications of executive branch employees could become public records after the president's term is over.

Though the law includes narrow exemptions for strictly personal communications, aides to the president say they assume his electronic messages will become public.

That prospect was enough to inspire Bush to curtail his family e-mails. He said he did not send them to daughters Jenna and Barbara for fear that his "personal stuff" might end up in the public domain.

"It's e-mail, and it has to be saved under public records laws just like one he sent from a desktop," said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University and author of "White House E-Mail: The Top Secret Computer Messages the Reagan-Bush White House Tried to Destroy."

"If you don't like that," Blanton said, "you might have to choose between being leader of the free world and having your BlackBerry."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Obama sees the device as "a way of keeping in touch with folks, a way of doing it outside of getting stuck in a bubble."

It's an elite group that can be trash-talked via Obama's BlackBerry. Only a small circle of friends and senior aides would be trading electronic messages with the president, Gibbs said, declining to pass out Obama's e-mail address to the media.

Word that Obama would be keeping his BlackBerry was hot news to reporters who packed the briefing room for Gibbs' first performance as White House press secretary.

As soon as he made the pronouncement, reporters immediately began thumb-typing the news to editors. The news began to make its way through Washington, fittingly, via BlackBerry.