FAQ: Why Obama may give up his BlackBerry

Six security experts say he should shelve it

"It doesn't matter what kind of encryption you're using [on a BlackBerry] when a judge demands that the plaintext [running over it] be produced," said Schneier, an author of several books on computer security. "There could be any number of issues where there is public pressure to release presidential communications. Remember, the best security measure to protect privacy is not to have the data in the first place."

OK, so there are problems with Obama's privacy on the BlackBerry, but what about hackers or foreign spies? Are those real concerns?

There are worries about spies tracking Obama's whereabouts, since a BlackBerry keeps transmitting to get new e-mail off RIM's Network Operations Center. That information can be used to track someone's location, a real danger for a US president in an era of terrorism, according to Pescatore, a former employee of the US Secret Service, and Ira Winkler, a former National Security Agency analyst, president of the Internet Security Advisors Group and a former Computerworld columnist.

Winkler said officials of the NSA and other security agencies are usually not allowed to use their BlackBerry devices for official business and are instructed to leave them in their cars when attending a meeting. Other analysts, however, said White House and FBI officials use BlackBerry devices, but they didn't know the limits on their uses.

The policy on BlackBerry devices used by federal officials could not be clarified, since officials for the Secret Service, which protects the president, did not respond to questions on this topic. Officials from the Obama transition team also could not be reached.

"The bad guys will know if the president has any wireless devices," Winkler said, adding there are examples of spies who have traced wireless communications in the past.

How would someone track Obama's BlackBerry?

Spies can use radio tracking equipment, similar to that used by military forces around the world to track troop movements, Winkler said. Basically, a spy can follow what's called the "emitter fingerprint" from any radio in any BlackBerry or other wireless device that is transmitting, he said. If the fingerprint is matched with a person's location the first time by a witness, the fingerprint can be used to follow that person later, he explained.

Really, that could happen?

Winkler cited the example in 2003 of a former LM Ericsson employee who was charged with treason in Sweden for giving details to the Russians on 3G wireless technology that allows tracking of users. "You can geo-locate people remotely from any place in the world," Winkler said.

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld
Topics: Blackberry, Barack Obama
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