Is Obama’s BlackBerry a security threat?

In the past week I’ve read a lot of stories about President-Elect Barack Obama possibly having to relinquish his BlackBerry come Jan. 20 for a variety of reasons that are just plain dumb.

One concern is that all Obama’s writings will need to be stored under lock and key to satisfy the Presidential Records Act, which requires that all presidential correspondence be seared onto the official record. The other, more nonsensical argument is that his Blackberry could pose a security risk.

Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless has suspended several employees who accessed account information for a flip-phone formerly used by President-elect Barack Obama, the company said in a statement last week.

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The phone used by Obama was not designed for e-mail or data services and had been inactive for several months, Verizon Wireless said. Recently, Obama has been frequently seen using a BlackBerry.

Verizon Wireless is investigating those workers who accessed the account with and without authorization, the company said. The employees are on paid leave. Those who have “accessed the account improperly and without legitimate business justification will face appropriate disciplinary action,” Verizon Wireless said. “We apologize to President-elect Obama and will work to keep the trust our customers place in us every day,” according to a statement attributed to Verizon Wireless CEO Lowell McAdam.

Verizon’s investigation is likely to prompt further questions over data security. Security experts frequently warn of the danger a company’s own employees can pose to data if given improper access or if they start acting maliciously.

In recent days, pundits have speculated that Obama may have to give up his BlackBerry due to concern over presidential communication going over e-mail and the risk it could be intercepted. U.S. government computer systems are frequently targeted by hackers and foreign intelligence agencies.

The argument is that hackers could break into his inbox and harvest data that’s potentially damaging to national security. Here there are reminders of when Paris Hilton’s cell phone was hacked, and when it was reported that a foreign entity had penetrated sensitive data on laptops in the campaigns of both Obama and Sen. John McCain.

The latter incident is worthy of concern, but that doesn’t mean Obama’s Blackberry is a threat to national security. That, I believe, is FUD generated from within Washington’s security establishment. On the drive home today I heard an interesting NPR interview with Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter where he argued for Obama to stay plugged in [he also wrote a column on the subject].

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Alter noted that taking away Obama’s Blackberry would contribute to the isolation that has become part of the modern presidency. He notes that President Bush would have benefitted from fuller access to e-mail because a wider range of friends and associates could have weighed in on some of the major debates of the Bush White House. Some of Bush’s friends, by e-mail, could have persuaded Bush to switch direction and avoid some of the trouble he got into, Alter says.

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That may be overstating things, but Alter’s wider point — that presidents are more successful when they are “plugged in” — is dead on. In Lincoln’s time, plugged in meant throwing open the White House doors so he could hear what was on people’s minds. In Franklin Roosevelt’s day, plugged in meant driving around rural Georgia in his hand-controlled car, meeting people and listening to their concerns. Alter argues, rightly so, that in an age where the president can no longer have Lincoln-style open houses or drive around the open countryside, e-mail can be an important way for Obama to stay connected to a wider group of people. That could go a long way in keeping him in touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.

I agree with that, but since this is a security column let’s address that end of the discussion. Is it possible that hackers could target Obama’s BlackBerry? No doubt. Would it be impossible for them to successfully extract sensitive data? Such things are never impossible.

But it’s highly unlikely.

First, Obama’s e-mail correspondence could easily be preserved for the historic record. Second, his Blackberry communications could easily be encrypted. Third, whether you voted for him or not, it’s not unreasonable to expect that Obama has and will use extreme caution in the messages he chooses to send. It’s hard to believe any president would be stupid enough to send classified national security data out from his smart phone. Never say never, but Obama seems smart enough to know better.

If the national security apparatus harbors any worry about not being able to properly secure such devices, the answer is for it to find ways to improve that security, not deprive the president of a useful communication tool.

That’s my view. I’d like to know what you think.

About FUD Watch: Senior Editor Bill Brenner scours the Internet in search of FUD – overhyped security threats that ultimately have little impact on a CSO’s daily routine. The goal: help security decision makers separate the hot air from genuine action items. To point us toward the industry’s most egregious FUD, send an e-mail to [email protected].

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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