FAQ: Why Obama may give up his BlackBerry

Six security experts say he should shelve it

Aside from tracking the radio signals transmitted by a BlackBerry, what about the actual information being sent? How secure is that?

Pescatore said RIM has in the past built BlackBerry devices for certain customers that include software and hardware to add high-level encryption. (RIM did not respond with any comment on this claim.) With such end-to-end encryption, which relies on the Advanced Encryption Standard 256, it would be hard to imagine "even a foreign power throwing huge computer power to brute force crack that kind of encryption," he said.

But Pescatore stressed that encryption "is not the weak link" in using a BlackBerry. "The weak link is how could he prove that he didn't send an e-mail to a woman claiming he had a liaison with her. How could he prove it?"

Does it matter that RIM's NOC is in Canada?

Apparently this issue matters to some who have blogged about it, since Canada is a foreign power, while it is also the closest ally of the US.

Experts noted that RIM is a publicly traded company and not an arm of the Canadian government. Even when a message passes over a network operated by any number of carriers and when it is on a server in the RIM NOC, it is encrypted with keys that RIM doesn't have, Pescatore said. RIM also has other NOCs in Europe, not just Canada.

What has RIM got to say about all this?

The company refused to comment on the issue of Obama using a BlackBerry. However, in the past, RIM has called its wireless e-mail system the most secure available and that it is in use by companies and governments around the world. It recently announced a security certification and has posted information about its security architecture on its Web site.

What is the bottom line for Obama, will he or won't he carry a BlackBerry?

Obama probably won't carry a BlackBerry, if he listens to our group of experts. But the reasons will stem mainly from the dangers of widespread use of e-mail made easier with a portable wireless device that tends to encourage even casual conversations. If Obama rejects e-mail altogether, he will be following the path set by other presidents who relied on aides to do the e-mailing.

Communications staff at the White House can probably implement any kind of technology that a president wants, Pescatore said, but Obama will probably receive all inbound e-mail messages in a different way. In other words, he will probably resort to a technique first used in the early years of the Clinton administration, when a group called Trusted Information Systems received all inbound e-mail, then transferred it to some form of media, probably including paper. That "safe" mail would then be transported to the White House, he said.

If this sounds like the way England's Queen Elizabeth I got her messages hundreds of years ago, it is close.

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld
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