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1/16/2009
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Can Obama Keep His BlackBerry?

Joe Hagin, former deputy White House chief of staff, says keeping the BlackBerry may wind up being more of a political issue than a technical one.

President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in as president of the United States Jan. 20, but questions remain about whether he will be able to keep his beloved smartphone.

"I'm still clinging to my BlackBerry," Obama said in an interview with The New York Times. "They're going to pry it out of my hands."

Obama faces multiple obstacles in order to keep that BlackBerry on his hip, according to Joe Hagin, former deputy White House chief of staff. Hagin, who handled the telecommunications issues for President Bush and his staff, told InformationWeek the problem boils down to technical, legal, and political issues.

While Research In Motion has built its strong enterprise following on the back of its Elliptic Curve Cryptography encryption technology, it does not meet the government's highest requirements for secure devices. Hagin said he can recall multiple instances of when White House staff was instructed to not bring their BlackBerry devices to foreign countries because of security fears.

When most people think of espionage and intelligence, they think of old spy stereotypes of international intrigue and exploding pens, Hagin said. But much of modern intelligence gathering can center on intercepting sensitive financial data, which can give you or your government a leg up.

Hagin thinks these security concerns are manageable, as there is a slate of software and hardware solutions that can protect smartphones. Additionally, it's conceivable Research In Motion could work with Obama and intelligence agencies to provide the 44th president with a custom-made handset that meets higher requirements.

Hagin said the debate should raise awareness among enterprises about how vulnerable smartphones can be. With more and more financial and strategic data being carried on these devices, they will increasingly be targeted by viruses and malware, Hagin said.

"It's not just the government; a lot of sophisticated financial institutions are just not doing the job they need to do to protect the data," Hagin said.

He expects corporations and the government to "wake up" to this issue and use the necessary software to provide protection, and he said phone manufacturers and carriers need to step up and make mobile security a priority.

These security issues are significant, but Hagin said it could be the legal and political issues that cause Obama to ditch his BlackBerry. Federal laws do allow the president to not disclose correspondence that are "of a purely private or nonpublic character," but Obama would surely face many legal battles from journalists and historians over what should be public and what shouldn't be.

Hagin said it could open the door for embarrassment, as an off-color or crude remark from a friend could provide ammunition for Obama's political enemies. Because of this, Hagin said he expects Obama will be convinced by his advisers to ditch the handset. This may feel odd for Obama though, who has grown used to the productivity boost smartphones can provide.

"It's not like he'll need it, as there will literally be hundreds of people in the White House to communicate for him," said Hagin. "He could have people printing out every e-mail for him if he wanted."

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