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by John Cox, Network World

White House confirms: ObamaBerry is a go

Jan 23, 20093 mins
Data and Information SecurityMobile Security

White House confirms President Barack Obama will have the use of a security-enhanced BlackBerry to correspond with a small group of personal friends and senior staff

In Thursday’s press briefing, the White House has confirmed that President Barack Obama will have the use of a security-enhanced BlackBerry, to correspond with a small group of personal friends and senior staff.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the wireless e-mail communications will be secure, and that hackers will not be able to access GPS coordinates on the device to pinpoint its location.

When asked if other friends and members of Congress would be able to e-mail the president, Gibbs declined to answer on security grounds. Gibbs confirmed that all wireless e-mails will be covered by the Presidential Records Act, and made public in due course under the Act’s provisions.

We reported Wednesday night that political blogger Marc Ambinder asserted yesterday, without attribution, that Obama would receive a standard BlackBerry device outfitted with a government-supplied “super encryption” package, presumably from the National Security Agency, to protect e-mails. Bloggers today have speculated that Obama would be using the high-security Sectera Edge smartphone, a Windows Mobile device built by General Dynamics. At the press conference, Gibbs did not go into detail about how the ObamaBerry would be deployed. The BlackBerry is essentially a handheld window and keyboard for mobile access to an existing mail system, such as Microsoft Exchange. Based on Gibbs’ comments, it would seem that the government is creating a very limited wireless e-mail universe for Obama and a select group of correspondents.

There is a version of the BlackBerry that uses AES-256 encryption, which has been approved by the Defense Department for sensitive communications. But Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, has worked with a range of government agencies and allows custom encryption schemes to be substituted for its own. That apparently is what’s being done for President Obama’s handheld.

RIM often emphasizes the quality of BlackBerry security, and points to a number of government and third-party security certifications as evidence that its encryption-key-management system is secure. To send and receive encrypted e-mails, both the president and his correspondents will need at least compatible encryption protocols, if they don’t have the same software package.

It’s not clear whether this will be an e-mail address that’s part of the White House system or some type of separate system protected by additional NSA defenses such as a custom firewall.

The issues around protecting presidential wireless e-mail are complex, especially in light of the president’s oft-stated intention of using his BlackBerry to keep in touch with long-time friends and confidants outside of his administration.