Compromise Allows Obama To Keep BlackBerry

Barack Obama is the first president to have a BlackBerry, even though it makes security officials nervous. During the campaign, Obama and his BlackBerry could not be parted. The president and his personal digital assistant will stay together with some changes.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's official: President Obama is keeping his BlackBerry. He's the first president to have one, even though it does make security officials nervous. During the campaign, Mr. Obama and his BlackBerry could not be parted. And as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the president and his personal digital assistant will stay together with only a few changes.

LAURA SYDELL: For such a small thing, President Obama's BlackBerry has generated a lot of interest. At yesterday's White House press conference, spokesman Robert Gibbs finally turned to address the pressing question.

(Soundbite of press conference, January 22, 2009)

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary, Barack Obama Administration): Oh, everybody's stirring for a - look at that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBBS: Make sure the pen still works.

SYDELL: In a recent interview on CNBC, Mr. Obama actually said that security officials would have to pry his BlackBerry from his hands. It looks like the president can declare victory in one of his first official battles. Gibbs says the president reached a compromise with his security team.

Mr. GIBBS: That allows him to stay in touch with senior staff and a small group of personal friends in a way that use will be limited, and that the security is enhanced to ensure his ability to communicate but to do so effectively.

SYDELL: Gibbs didn't give details on exactly how they would enhance the security of what might be called the First BlackBerry, but experts say there are many security problems. Alan Paller is director of research at the SANS Institute, which provides professional education on information security. Paller says it can be hard to tell if your BlackBerry is on or off.

Mr. ALAN PALLER (Director, Research, SANS Institute): So, you think your machine's off, and a hacker can actually turn it on and turn the microphone on so he can listen in on conversations you don't know you're having.

SYDELL: Paller says it's likely that White House security will make sure that the president's BlackBerry really shuts off. Experts also say having messages directed through White House servers, rather than commercially owned ones, would provide more security. However, Paller doubts that Mr. Obama will be permitted to make phone calls on his PDA. The problem of protecting cell-phone conversations goes way beyond the White House. Some may remember back many years, when Britain's Prince Charles was infamously recorded having a personal conversation with his mistress on a cell phone. Paller says that could happen today. Commercial phone companies just haven't come up with effective techniques for encrypting cell-phone conversations.

Dr. PATRICK TRAYNOR (Computer Science, Georgia Institute of Technology): The encryption of phone conversations isn't quite ready for prime time. The people who've used encrypted phones have gotten so mad they've thrown it against the wall to break it.

SYDELL: Security for handheld devices is actually becoming more of an issue, says Patrick Traynor, a computer science professor at Georgia Tech. In the future, he expects more people will store credit-card numbers, bank-account information and maybe even medical records on their PDAs. Right now, Traynor doesn't think the vast majority of commercially available devices, including the BlackBerry, have enough security protection. For example...

Dr. TRAYNOR: If you send a text message that's formatted in a certain way, you can actually prevent the phone from ever turning on again.

SYDELL: But as the first president to have a First BlackBerry, Mr. Obama is setting a precedent that may help develop new, better security measures for mobile devices, says researcher Alan Paller.

Mr. PALLER: This is the government leading by example, and the things that they have done will filter out to the rest of us so that we can feel more and more secure. This is actually what government should always be doing.

SYDELL: It's not so clear that Mr. Obama was really thinking about new technology policies. The president says he just wants to feel like he's connected. And like a lot of us, he's just addicted to his BlackBerry. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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