Obama’s BlackBerry Addiction

It appears that one of the byproducts of being elected president is that Barack Obama will soon have to give up his beloved BlackBerry.

For years, like legions of other professionals, Mr. Obama has been all but addicted to his BlackBerry. The device has rarely been far from his side — on most days, it was fastened to his belt — to provide a singular conduit to the outside world as the bubble around him grew tighter and tighter throughout his campaign. “How about that?” Mr. Obama replied to a friend’s congratulatory e-mail message on the night of his victory.

But before he arrives at the White House, he will probably be forced to sign off. In addition to concerns about e-mail security, he faces the Presidential Records Act, which puts his correspondence in the official record and ultimately up for public review, and the threat of subpoenas. A decision has not been made on whether he could become the first e-mailing president, but aides said that seemed doubtful.

For all the perquisites and power afforded the president, the chief executive of the United States is essentially deprived by law and by culture of some of the very tools that other chief executives depend on to survive and to thrive. Mr. Obama, however, seems intent on pulling the office at least partly into the 21st century on that score; aides said he hopes to have a laptop computer on his desk in the Oval Office, making him the first American president to do so.

It’s likely time to modify the law.  Even presidents ought to be able to have privacy on what are truly private matters.  Surely, presidential emails can be shielded from public scrutiny for some period of time — as are their papers — and we could establish some sort of process whereby they could designate private correspondence exempt from release and a neutral party could verify.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, US Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. odograph says:

    It’s interesting. We don’t require the President to record every phone call. That is technologically possible. Heck, it’s technologically possible that the President wear a wire for his term, recording everything.

    We don’t do that, for the reasons you state, a feeling about personal privacy.

    A line was sort of drawn, but it sort of evolved out of history and old technology as well. Pieces of paper were considered records and had retention policies. Audio tapes, once made, became records as well – though there was no obligation to make them.

    What we still “feel” is personal is based on that history and old tech.

    I actually lean toward the position that emails, and text chat, are records simply because they replace the paper equivalents. So for me they fall on that side of the line.

    Apparently the White House has lost a bit of the battle not to recover its emails … another weird technology/policy interaction. Were you obliquely referring to this?

    I personally want those recovered, first because I think existing courts want them (Plame), and second for the historical record. I think they will show us something about the origins of the Iraq war.

    If the President wants personal time, he can pick up the phone, or talk face to face. I’m sure the funniest-business in any Presidency is face to face, no records, anyway.

  2. John Burgess says:

    If every word issuing from the President’s mouth is to be considered ‘on the record’, then he’s not going to say very much. Far more time will be spent considering how his words might be used against him than will be spent in actually contemplating the contents of those words.

    I will extend that to e-mail, though as it actually serves as its own record, I think it can be accessible some time after he has left office.

    I’m more concerned about the security of using devices like a BlackBerry. As James knows, things like cell phones, PDAs, and their all-in-one replacements are excluded from secure environments.

    The USG does not run the security for BlackBerry, iPhone, or the others. Consequently, it will not rely on the the security provided for those devices. When even a turned-off cell phone can be hacked into a radio transmitter, there will be enormous security implications to a president’s using such devices in the office.

    The USG will not even buy the IBM Lenovo computers (built in China) because it cannot adequately ensure the security of the circuitry, it’s not about to open the door to other devices.

    Maybe it would be a good idea for NSA to reverse engineer all the circuitry and software used in modern telecommunications gear in order to ensure security. A lot of non-government people might enjoy the benefits of that. If you think so (though I hear the EFF screaming already), lobby your congressman.

  3. Clearly some sort rules have to be made about electronic communication. Still, it has struck me as very strange that once you become president we expect you to go back in time in regards to technology. To some degree I suppose it depends on the age of the president (I doubt McCain would have wanted a laptop–and that isn’t a slam on McCain, most folks in there 70s aren’t computer-addicted), but we are getting to the point that this is silly.

    I remember when Bush became president and he had to give up e-mail for communicating with family and friends. That’s just not right and leads to the further isolation of the president.

  4. Floyd says:

    He won’t miss his Blackberry….
    He’ll have a Hucklebery for every need!

  5. Sheryl Roehl says:

    Wonder how President-elect Obama will deal with the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms from his CrackBerry addiction? Read a tongue-in-cheek fantasy letter to the President-elect on how to cope (from one addict to another) at http://www.justmypointofview.wordpress.com.

  6. Similar issues apply in state government. On account of Open Records Acts, state governments are wise to insist that employees (including governors) route all business e-mail through a central e-mail archive and to encourage employees to take all personal e-mail to personal accounts. –Ben

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I guess it is important Obama has the ability to converse with his mentors in private. It would not bode well if we knew what the Prez was sayin to Jeremiah, Michael, Billy boy, his family friend, and his buddy Louis. Not forgetting important input from his buddy George S.

  8. Michael says:

    Does the Blackberry not support SSL encryption for sending and receiving email? If so, just have it use the government’s email servers and you have security and retention.

    Also, instead of reverse engineering everything, why not give the President something like the Neo Freerunner* and the NSA guys can spend all their time making everything about it secure.

    (*) They could use an Android phone if they only cared about the integrity of the software.

  9. Davebo says:
  10. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    Everything on the BlackBerry is in fact end-to-end encrypted from the handheld to the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which is operated by your company or organization, not by the telephone company. Also, the entire operating system and all the applications are in Java running in a virtual machine, so they aren’t prone to stack smashing and buffer overflow attacks that plague the iPhone, Nokia, and Windows Mobile operating systems. BlackBerry is, by far, the most fundamentally sound security system on any handheld computing platform.

    That said, it could be the best and still not be good enough.

  11. Michael says:

    I didn’t realize that the Blackberry OS was Java based, I just might have to re-think upgrading to one.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    He’ll have a Hucklebery [sic] for every need!

    Lindsay Graham is joining his Cabinet? Who knew…

  13. DL says:

    “…a neutral party could verify.”

    Heh Heh -a neutral party -heh heh! Good one James.