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Is West Wing BlackBerry Security Possible?

By Bill Brenner
February 3, 2009 12:00 PM ET

CSO - Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin is the guy who planned George W. Bush's secret trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and oversaw renovations to the Situation Room and press briefing room. He was also the one in charge of securing every BlackBerry used in the West Wing.

And so it's of little surprise that everyone wants his opinion on President Obama's BlackBerry, the security of which has been the subject of often heated debate. [Read: Obama's BlackBerry is No Security Threat]

As deputy chief of staff, Hagin suffered his fair share of heartburn over the security of those devices, and ordered tight restrictions on how they could be used. He limited the functionality of the devices overseas, for example, and worried plenty about terrorists exploiting BlackBerry security holes.

In this Q&A, he opines on Obama's BlackBerry use and security measures every smart phone user should heed. [Read: 5 Ways to Secure Your BlackBerry]

Talk about some of the pros and cons of BlackBerry use in the West Wing from a security perspective. Joe Hagin: When we first got to the White House, there were no BlackBerries, there were no smart phones in the executive branch. The folks on Capitol Hill began using BlackBerry technology and it proliferated very rapidly up there. On Sept. 11, 2001, when we had so much trouble in the executive branch communicating during the emergency, when commercial phones and cell phones went down to a large extent because the system overloaded, there was a lot of difficulty at the White House because the President was in Florida, I was in New York City and everyone else was in Washington. With everyone spread so thinly, we had trouble figuring out who was OK, the status of things, and so on. In the weeks that followed, when talking to some of our friends on the hill, we found that they had stayed in pretty good touch through BlackBerry technology. We ultimately decided to proceed with a limited distribution of BlackBerries in the White House. It started with 50, turned to 200 and today I think almost everyone there is using one.

What were the security restrictions you established? Hagin: We banned classified material from any over-the-air device that was not encrypted and approved by various federal agencies. Both the sending and receiving party would have to have one of the secure devices. The problem facing the President is not much different from what business leaders face. The business leaders just aren't as aware of the risks. The way most people use these devices is with little awareness of the inherent risks and the ease with which they can be hacked and infected with malware. As smart phones become smarter and the functionality increases -- people in Japan now use them in lieu of a credit card at the point of sale, for example -- the opportunity for someone to have financial gain from hacking them only gets bigger. When we see that kind of functionality grow in the United States, security will simply have to be ramped up. Any company big or small that transmits sensitive information on these devices must understand the risks and the need for more robust security software to protect data on the devices.

This story is reprinted from CSO, an online resource for information executives. Story Copyright CXO Media Inc., 2006. All rights reserved.
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