Securing The Presidential Blackberry
The Presidential Blackberry. Wouldn’t you love to get a glimpse of what’s on it? That’s precisely the problem, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin told WebProNews. While President Bush travels generally incommunicado–that is, unthinkably for most us, sans mobile phone–the President-Elect is in a very public argument for retention of his pre-election smart phone.
Hagin, who served quietly as one of Bush’s main confidants from 2001 to mid-2008, developed the current policy for smart phone usage at the White House. Unlike in France and India*, Blackberrys are approved by the US government for high-level employees, even for dealing with sensitive but unclassified information. Hagin says many White House staffers have smart phones with heavy restrictions.
"We’ve all become so dependent on them," he said. "It really impacts your productivity if you can’t use them."
Hagin, currently the CEO of Jet Support Services, Inc. and serving on the Board of Directors for SMobile, a mobile phone security company, said White House staffers aren’t just required to have strong protection against hacker tools like malware and viruses, but also, when traveling internationally, are required to remove the battery from their phones and leave them on the plane.
"The smart phone is basically a computer, and it’s every bit as vulnerable as PCs were in the late 90s and early 2000s. It’s building up to be as serious a problem as it was [then]," he said.
President Obama, then, will have to make the same difficult decision most corporate CIOs have to make. Executive smart phones can carry strategies, account numbers, banking records, PayPal accounts, etc. "All that stuff is vulnerable," said Hagin, who doesn’t mind recommending SMobile as a good security solution.
Though hackers of the past sought notoriety, hacking to prove their chops among the hacker community, Hagin warns that today’s hackers are subtler and avoid leaving digital fingerprints as they snoop for private data. "I think the President-Elect is raising the curtain and shedding some light on these problems." He notes also the high number of well-documented cyber attacks on the White House, from both individual and state-sponsored hackers.
"It is a very real problem," he said, "and not something that only affects the President." There are political and legal concerns in addition to security issues in regard to Presidential communications. Both outgoing and incoming email messages would have to be retained and become possibly susceptible to Freedom of Information Act requests, but also to malicious hackers attempting to intercept those messages wirelessly. "What if some hacker was able to display a day’s worth of messages?"
So how, exactly, does the President keep connected in the 21st Century? President Bush kept things decidedly 20th Century. One method is having hard lines installed in the places the President visits. The rest of the time, he relies on his entourage. "(Bush) has mobile phones available to him. His cars have cell phones. Most of the aides have them available if he needs one. It’s the smart phone that’s creating the issue."
As for Obama, will he win the battle to keep his Blackberry?
"Without taking additional software he’s probably not going to be able to keep it, and I think that’s a shame," said Hagin. "He probably won’t be able to."
The President of the United States not being "able" to do something might sound like his security detail is running him, instead of the other way around. Just to clarify, the President does have the authority to override those objections, right?
"Sure does," said Hagin.
*India reportedly banned Blackberrys for the opposite reason of its Western European counterparts: they’re too secure, hampering the government’s ability to spy on mobile communications.