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Is Obama's handheld a BlackBerry or something else?

Security experts say it's likely the NSA-approved Sectera Edge (see video below)

January 23, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The decision announced yesterday that President Barack Obama will keep his BlackBerry, or some model of a wireless handheld, amid tight White House security would seem to take a back seat to concerns about global terrorism and economic turmoil.

But in a small way, Obama's desire to continue to use a wireless handheld for personal e-mail and other communications has become a symbol of how he sees his role. He has said repeatedly that he wants to reach beyond the policy wonks of Washington to the body politic at large.

In that spirit, the president surprised the White House press corps yesterday with a quick visit where he pulled a device from his coat pocket that looked like an oversized BlackBerry -- or a perhaps like one of the hefty bar-code scanners used to read tickets at sporting events. It was mostly silver colored, but he was holding it screen-down, mostly covered by his hand, so it was difficult to see.

"I won the fight, but I don't think it's actually up and running yet," Obama said, referring to the device, as several TV news crews recorded the moment.

To be precise, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that the president has "a BlackBerry," but not necessarily his previous BlackBerry.

"He has a BlackBerry through a compromise that allows him to stay in touch with senior staff and a small group of personal friends in a way that will be limited and security-enhanced to secure his ability to communicate, but to do so effectively and do so in a way that is protected," Gibbs said. But Gibbs didn't give many details, as noted in various news reports.

The device Obama intends to use might not even be a BlackBerry, and it might not be that close in size or weight to the small, sleek device made by Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion Ltd.

Even though Gibbs repeatedly called it a BlackBerry, four security analysts interviewed today said the handheld is probably something else. They based their assessments primarily on the fact that the device Obama pulled from his pocket looked too large to be a BlackBerry. Moreover, its silver skin looked like that of the Sectera Edge, which is already being used by thousands of federal government workers.

The security analysts speculated that Obama will use the Sectera Edge, designed by General Dynamics Corp. and L-3 Communications, because it meets the government's highest security requirements. It runs on Windows CE software, not the BlackBerry operating system, and it presumably would not rely on an e-mail pathway through a network operations center outside of the U.S., as the BlackBerry does, with NOCs in Canada and Europe.

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The Sectera Edge, video courtesy of General Dynamics.

The National Security Agency oversaw an $18 million contract to create the purpose-built Sectera Edge, which is used by tens of thousands of personnel in the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department, according to Microsoft Corp. officials.

While speculation generally centers on Obama using a Sectera Edge, Fran Jacques, a spokeswoman at General Dynamics in Scottsdale, Ariz., said she could not confirm that Obama is using one. Officials at the White House, the NSA and RIM could not be reached for comment, leaving the details undetermined.

Two of the security analysts interviewed today said the Sectera Edge could well be the device Obama will use because it will resolve many of the security concerns, including the need for superencryption of messages.

"The Sectera Edge was built under NSA contract, so the assumption is that the product has been developed so that it is less likely to be compromised," said Ira Winkler, a security analyst, a former NSA employee and the author of Spies Among Us.

A BlackBerry would be vulnerable to hackers and could be used as a listening device to hear the president's words, Winkler said. It could even be used to locate the president through triangulation, he added. "If it were a regular BlackBerry, the Chinese and Russians would be devoting millions of dollars to get into it," he said.

Presumably the Sectera Edge will send messages over networks with higher levels of security than those a BlackBerry would use, Winkler added.

The White House spokesman also said that the president will use the device to keep in touch with only a small group of staffers and friends, and the security experts noted that the decision to restrict the number of contacts automatically reduces the security risk.

Daniel Castro, a security analyst at the nonprofit Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington, said Obama is probably using the Sectera Edge even though Gibbs called it a BlackBerry, because BlackBerry has become an almost generic term used to refer to a number of handhelds. Ironically, Obama will be limited in the circle of people he can communicate with over the handheld, just when the new president was hoping to reach out to more.

"That's what it's like to be president," Castro said. "If he wants to have a free flow of information and hear what people are saying, he needs a two-way blog set up by the White House staff."

Read more about Mobile/Wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.



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