The 'BarackBerry' in the White House

Obama's smart phone options: BlackBerry vs. NSA-approved PDA

(Editor's note: This story, originally published Jan. 23, was updated Jan. 31.) 

White House officials still aren't saying what kind of smart phone President Obama is using to stay connected with his closest confidantes.

Conflicting reports indicated that Obama would be keeping his BlackBerry -- the ubiquitous e-mail and smart phone device made by Research In Motion (RIM) – while other reports suggested he would need a different, more secure smart phone that met National Security Agency standards. A White House spokesman acknowledged that White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was referring to the BlackBerry in generic terms in statements about what smart phone the president would be using.  

However, an encryption expert familiar with the security design of BlackBerry smart phones, and the enterprise administration systems that support them, confirmed that a BlackBerry has all the encryption and security provisions a president would need, even if though BlackBerry's are not currently certified by the government to operate on classified communications networks. 

RIM uses Advanced Encryption Standard 256, the strongest encryption method available, and one that is approved for secret levels of communication by the NSA. Moreover, there are more than 500 policies that an administrator can control regarding how messages are to be delivered, from or to whom, and what Internet applications can be processed. Administrators can even arrange to delete all the data at rest on a BlackBerry if it hasn’t connected to the network within a set number of hours. 

BlackBerry can also support additional layers of encryption, including proprietary protocols such as HAIPE (high assurance Internet protocol encryptor), a lightweight virtual private network that NSA requires to access the government’s classified Secure IP Router Network (SIPRnet).

“The built in security of the BlackBerry is equal to the SME PED, but the difference is the type of cipher,” said this encryption expert, referring to the Secure Mobile Environment Portable Electronic Devices that the government has commissioned. (See more on GCN's Tech Blog).

If the president did have to switch to NSA-approved smart phone, most likely it would be one available now to government officials made by General Dynamics C4 Systems Group called the Sectéra Edge (pictured).

The Sectera Edge is a custom-designed device is engineered and configured to send and receive wireless classified e-mail messages and attachments, as well as access Web sites on the government’s Secure IP Router Network (SIPRnet). It features a single-touch button that permits authorized users to toggle between SIPRnet and government’s non-secure network, NIPRnet. And it would allow the president to have secure voice conversations.

Until recently, government officials typically had to carry multiple devices to perform these tasks.

The ruggedized device is designed to military 810F standards, which makes it reliable in extreme military conditions, and works over the Global System for Mobile Communications, Code Division Multiple Access and Wi-Fi commercial cellular networks. It also incorporates an Integrated Common Access Card, which meets the Defense Department’s identity management and public-key infrastructure standards, and uses Type 1 and Advanced Encryption Standard encryption.  All those built in features come at price; the units sell for about $3,350 under government contracts.

A spokeswoman for General Dynamics could not comment on whether the president would be getting one of the company's smart phones. But industry experts have confirmed the Sectéra Edge is gaining acceptance as one of the first  SME PED devices now generally available to the government market that meets specifications from the National Security Agency and the military.  L-3 Communications is also marketing a SME PED, called the Guardian, but it is still in the certification process and isn't expected to be available until mid-2009, an L-3 spokewoman said.

However, switching to Sectéra Edge would mean a big change in operating systems for President Obama. The device uses Microsoft Windows Embedded CE operating system, with the usual calendar, contacts, notes and document features. The devices also reportedly must be recharged much more frequently to support the virtual private network sessions required to access secure networks. 

But after years of using RIM’s more user-friendly e-mail, calendar and contact system -- and unfettered access to friends and colleagues compared to a very limited list of contacts now -- Obama is likely to stick with the BlackBerry he knows.


About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.


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