The secure 'BarackBerry'

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

White House officials still aren't saying what kind of smart phone President Barack 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 to switch to a government-authorized smart phone that meets National Security Agency standards. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he 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 smart phone could possibly offer.  Who will have the ability to trade e-mails with the president is another story. 

RIM uses Advanced Encryption Standard 256, the strongest encryption method available. NSA has approved it for secret levels of communication. 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. 

BlackBerrys can also support additional layers of encryption, including proprietary protocols such as high assurance IP 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,” the encryption expert said, referring to the Secure Mobile Environment Portable Electronic Devices that the government has commissioned. 

What the BlackBerry lacks however is NSA approval to access secured government networks and certain other security requirements.

If the president did have to switch to an NSA-approved smart phone, it would most likely be one called the Sectéra Edge, made by General Dynamics C4 Systems Group.

The Sectéra Edge is a custom-designed device that has been configured to send and receive wireless classified e-mail messages and attachments and access Web sites on SIPRnet. It features a single-touch button that permits authorized users to toggle between SIPRnet and the government’s nonsecure 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 those tasks.

The ruggedized device is designed to satisfy military 810F standards, which makes it reliable in extreme military conditions, and works via 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 make the device costly; the units sell for about $3,350 under government contracts.

A General Dynamics spokeswoman 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 NSA and military specifications. 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 the Microsoft Windows Embedded CE operating system, with 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 — the betting is that Obama will likely 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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