BlackBerry Force One Is Up to the Job

Although not without risk, experts say "Obamaberry" will be well-protected.

January 22, 2009, 8:48 PM

Jan. 23, 2009— -- "Hail to the Chief" is so yesterday.

Now that Barack Obama and his tech-savvy team have ascended to the White House, the more apt expression appears to be "Berry to the Chief."

Since winning the election, Obama has argued that he should be allowed to bring his BlackBerry to the Oval Office, despite national security concerns and a tradition of e-mail-free presidents.

On Thursday, he finally got to say, "I won the fight."

Although Obama will only be able to communicate with senior staff and a select group of personal friends, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed that officials had negotiated a secure way for the president to hold on to his precious device.

"He believes it's a way of keeping in touch with folks, a way of doing it outside of getting stuck in a bubble," Gibbs said at his first White House press briefing.

Gibbs didn't provide many details about the enhancements that will make the device safe for presidential use, but though security experts recognize that nothing can be absolutely hacker-proof, they say the "Obamaberry" will be well-protected.

"There are three areas where security issue come to play with the BlackBerry," Greg Harper, a technology consultant for Fortune 500 companies, told "The physical location of the device, the voice communication and the data."

But while each one has its own set of security threats, they are not beyond resolution. And, he said, the key to each of them is to change tactics rapidly.

Multiple techniques could work, and given the President's sky-high profile, Harper expects the security team behind Obama's BlackBerry to stay ahead of potential hackers by changing codes, methods and, potentially devices, with high frequency.

Many executives use systems that encrypt the data traveling in e-mail exchanges, and Harper surmised that Obama will use the most powerful one NSA has to offer.

He also said that most likely the list of people who will be able to communicate with him will be extremely limited. In addition to rejecting messages from unknown e-mail addresses, Obama's incoming e-mail messages will likely spend some time quarantined and scanned for malware before they are forwarded to his Blackberry.

Tracking the President

Addressing the voice issue is more complicated but, he said, there are a few options available. The digital voice signal can be scrambled, although it requires both parties in a call to have the same scrambling technology.

He noted NSA-approved secure phone lines and cell phones. And he said that, though it's not easy to add the necessary features to a BlackBerry, Research In Motion, the company that makes the device, has worked with the government to make phone conversations more secure.

The more difficult issue to address is the location piece. At all times, a working cell phone is talking to cell towers so that the cellular system knows where to deliver calls and messages.

That constant communication makes it possible for a hacker to track the user's whereabouts.

"GPS -- that is a very big concern. That's one of the biggest concerns with having a BlackBerry," said James Bamford, an NSA expert and author of "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America."

"The worst case scenario is using that signal as a homing device," he addd.

Still, some security experts caution that the risks related to the presidential BlackBerry have been overblown. Although it could be dangerous for the president's location to be compromised, they also say that, most of the time, the president's whereabouts are broadcast on television.

When it's crucial for the president to be absconded to an undisclosed location, it's easy enough for the Secret Service to turn the device off.

"I think people need a little bit of perspective here. It's not like Barack Obama is inventing having important content on a BlackBerry," said Dan Kaminsky, a computer security consultant for Seattle-based IOActive, Inc., who is credited with discovering a major Internet security flaw.

For years, Research In Motion has had its devices in the hands of high-ranking executives and military leaders.

"You're talking about the one platform that has always had to assume it's under attack because of the importance of the people [who use it]," Kaminsky said. "That sort of pressure is what RIM has been living under."

As more people choose a smart phone over a regular cell phone, he acknowledged that it's true that hackers will more aggressively target devices like BlackBerries.

But building an attack that only targets one person -- even if it's the president -- isn't as worthwhile as building attack that that imperils a larger chunk of the connected population, he said.

More importantly, he emphasized, just as President Obama has unparalleled physical security, he will also have unparalleled digital security.

In addition to a "secret sauce" of encryption to keep obscure the device's messages, Kaminsky expects security engineers will work around the clock to fend off possible hackers.

And it seems that, when it comes to mobile devices, our geek in chief will be shooting from both hips.

In addition to the BlackBerry, experts expect Obama to use the Sectera Edge, a high-powered mobile communications device made by General Dynamics and approved by the National Security Agency.

"You could have a two-device scenario here," said Sascha Segan, lead analyst for mobile devices at PCMag Digital Network.

Obama could shoot off an offhand note to Malia with his BlackBerry and then pick up the Sectera to answer a call from Gen. David Petraeus, one of America's top military leaders, Segan told

The $3,350 smart phone is one of only two such devices approved by the NSA for information classified as "Top Secret," Segan said, adding that it encrypts voice conversations and classified documents to a nearly unbreakable extent using protocols beyond the reach of average citizens.

But, in some ways, Segan indicated, although it's bulkier and more rugged than the sleek BlackBerry, the Sectera is so powerful it almost renders another device unnecessary.

With a flip of a switch, the president could alternate between classified and non-classified exchanges. Theoretically, he could use the same device to communicate with Malia and Petraeus.

But aside from being the president, Obama is just another guy who wants to hold on to what's familiar.

"I've been covering wireless devices for five years ... [and] people get attached to their particular devices," Segan said. "A cell phone is a very personal thing -- an extension of themselves."

And, ultimately, he pointed out, the leader of the free world gets the final say.

"He's going to take advice from people," Segan said. "But to quote his predecessor: He's the decider."

ABC News' Sarah Netter contributed to this report.