We’ve all heard about President Obama’s attempts in recent weeks to retain his BlackBerry. Like many other users of the device, he finds it hard to let go.
We know that his request to keep his smartphone was eventually accepted.
What we don’t know is how it will work to keep his communications safe from the prying eyes of terrorists and foreign governments.
Marc Ambinder, Associate Editor and political specialist at the Atlantic magazine ( www.theatlantic.com ), didn’t have much luck trying to find out.
General Dynamics ( www.generaldynamics.com ), which provides IT support to the US Government, refused to comment.
Emails to the National Security Agency ( www.nsa.gov ) and the Obama administration went unanswered.
So the speculation is that the NSA has added “super encryption” to the President’s phone.
The story has struck a chord in Government circles, because more and more federal workers in Washington DC and elsewhere are pressurising their employers to allow them to use the iPhone to take advantage of internet-based applications apart from email.
The demand will soon become almost unstoppable. An increasing number of phones are now effectively mobile computers and Google’s Android software package adds to the list of available applications ( http://code.google. com/android ).
The problem is that the whole subject amounts to a security nightmare for the people in charge of ICT.
Some of the concerns stem from loss of data and damaging malware. But smartphones add a new layer of risk. The fact that they are always switched on exposes the user to location tracking, hijacking of the handset to use its camera and microphone surreptitiously, and data theft via Bluetooth.
Imagine the headaches, then, when those potential risks involve the Commander in Chief.
It was recently confirmed by the White House that Obama is, in fact, using a BlackBerry with added security, and not the Sectera Edge ( http://preview. tinyurl.com/2q322l ), which is essentially a smartphone on steroids. Many analysts had argued that only the Edge would provide the required level of security.
Whatever algorithms and encryption the National Security Agency has added to the President’s phone, there’s another issue to be considered.
All Presidential communications, including emails, are subject to subpoena by Congress and the courts.
It has been confirmed also that messages to and from the phone will be subject to the Presidential Records Act ( http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Presidential_Records_Act ), which provides for the preservation of historical information.
Once that hurdle has been cleared, however, there is another issue that hasn’t been debated in depth. As more and more information is stored digitally, the potential for its eventual loss increases.
Previous Presidents did much of their communication on paper (the Kennedy Library, for example, has a huge archive of material).
But as Mark Everett Hall, who blogs for Computerworld ( http://blogs.computerworld.com/hall ) points out, there’s no guarantee that a specific way of storing data (in this case that of the BlackBerry’s maker, Research In Motion) will be accessible with any of the tools available in 100 years’ time.
Hardly any modern desktop PC can read a 3.5-inch floppy disk any more. As for the old 5.25-inch or 8-inch floppies, forget it. A famous example of “technological quicksand”, as some analysts call it, is the BBC’s Domesday Project in 1986, which recreated the Domesday Book for the modern day.
A mere 14 years later, nobody could read it because the machines for playing the 12-inch video disks no longer existed. It was finally saved, after a lot of hard work, in 2002.
A President’s desire to keep his smartphone for ease of communication may yet result in a tougher time of it for the archivists.