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Bloggers wonder: Is Obama's BlackBerry super-encrypted?

A security expert says the concept wouldn't work

January 21, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Bloggers are now speculating that President Barack Obama will have access to a BlackBerry wireless device equipped with a superencryption package, although -- not surprisingly -- no one is sure whether the president is actually using one.

The latest chapter in the ongoing Obama BlackBerry saga emerged from a blog by Marc Ambinder, who pointed out that it isn't clear that the encryption in question is anything new. Nor is it clear what it will allow the president to do. The National Security Agency and the White House would not comment to Ambinder and could not be reached by Computerworld for comment.

Obama has said repeatedly that he wants to keep his BlackBerry as a way to stay in touch with all sorts of people outside the presidential bubble, something he was used to doing before being elected president. In a recent interview, Obama remarked on the need to reach outside of the White House to average people outside of his staff.

A number of security concerns have been raised about the president using a handheld device, but most analysts have told Computerworld that the biggest security threat involves his use of outbound e-mail. That concern, which would include e-mails sent from a laptop, for instance, centers around the fact that someone could claim to have gotten a message from the president when, in fact, Obama had sent nothing.

Despite new talk about encryption, a security expert said the main issue about how the president would use his superencrypted BlackBerry is whether it was being used for contact with people outside government. If Obama wanted to reach an outsider via the BlackBerry, then the person getting his messages would need to have a BlackBerry equipped with super-de-cryption capabilities.

That's not likely to happen because of the cost -- and inherent loss of security -- involved in sharing encryption technology for public use, said Daniel Castro, a senior analyst for security matters at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit.

Castro said in an interview that the biggest security threat with using a standard wireless device is that a foreign government or a group perceived as a threat could triangulate his location fairly easily. Castro also posited that an outsider could turn Obama's BlackBerry into a microphone that could then transmit voice messages to an outsider without Obama's knowledge.

Despite those spy-like possibilities, Castro said he felt the risks of Obama's using a BlackBerry aren't nearly as high. "Right now, [they're] pretty small."

Read more about Security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.



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