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The BlackBerry compact of '09

January 23, 2009|Christi Parsons and Jim Puzzanghera

WASHINGTON — OMG! POTUS keeps his BB.

After facing down his top security advisors, President Obama won the right Thursday to be the BlackBerry user-in-chief.

Under an arrangement with security aides, Obama will get a new BlackBerry loaded with software approved by U.S. intelligence officials that lets him communicate with friends, family and close associates without fear of hackers reading his e-mail.

Obama's decision to keep the device underscores his devotion to technology in the face of such issues as public access to presidential correspondence.

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 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. He has been adamant about keeping that link, telling news outlets this month: "I'm still clinging to my BlackBerry. They're going to pry it out of my hands."

Even if he won't be scanning his own groceries or buying his own milk -- former President George H.W. 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 of other Americans do, by way of thumbs on a keypad.

Although the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, told reporters that Obama would be keeping his BlackBerry, experts speculated that security concerns might force the president to adopt another brand of smart phone, such as those used by intelligence agencies.

BlackBerrys, often called CrackBerrys because of the addictive tendencies they unleash in legions of fans, 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 miniature radio transmitter, allowing eavesdroppers to hear conversations near it.

Another program 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 an outsider hacking into Obama's BlackBerry, but rather someone targeting the devices of people with whom the president is 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.

Although 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 George W. 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."

Gibbs said Obama saw the device as "a way of keeping in touch with folks, a way of doing it outside of getting stuck in a bubble." He said the president sent him e-mails that included business as well as such matters as "why did my football team perform so miserably."

It's an elite group that can be trash-talked via Obama's Berry. 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 Gibbs made the pronouncement, reporters immediately began thumb-typing the news to editors. The news began to make its way through Washington, fittingly, via BlackBerry.

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cparsons@tribune.com

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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