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Coughing up BlackBerry a bitter pill for Obama

WASHINGTON - He's been seen cradling it and gazing upon it almost as frequently as he's cooed at babies and promised to bring change to Washington.

WASHINGTON - He's been seen cradling it and gazing upon it almost as frequently as he's cooed at babies and promised to bring change to Washington.

Barack Obama has a deep and abiding affection for his made-in-Canada BlackBerry, and yet the gods are conspiring against him - despite his best efforts, Obama will almost certainly be forced to dump his beloved Berry after his inauguration on Tuesday.

It's a breakup the president-elect has long been dreading.

"I'm still clinging to my BlackBerry," he said in a recent interview with CNBC. "They're going to pry it out of my hands."

Canada's Research in Motion (TSX:RIM), the inventor and manufacturer of the BlackBerry, is adamant that its devices and security network protect all data passing through them. Officials for the company won't comment on Obama's fondness for their device - or his impending heartache.

But most technology experts say that no security systems - either at RIM or any other company - can ever be entirely safe from hackers, spies, snoops and trouble-makers, and point out that allowing Obama to keep his BlackBerry could pose a serious security risk.

White House security agencies and lawyers have not only insisted Obama abandon the BlackBerry, but email in general as well.

In addition to the security risk, they say, all presidential communications can be made public due to the Freedom of Information Act and the Presidential Records Act of 1978 - something that makes political strategists queasy.

Nonetheless, the notion of having to forego email and hand-held devices might seem inhumane and unimaginable to anyone under the age of 50, for whom emailing and texting has evolved into a primary mode of communication over the past 15 years.

The idea of an offline president seems equally bizarre.

"It just doesn't seem right to me," said Karen Daniel, a television producer from Knoxville, Tenn., who nurses her own hard-core Berry addiction. "He's a man of his generation and this is how his generation communicates."

Daniel's not alone, according to the results of a survey conducted this week by the San Francisco Chronicle.

The newspaper asked its readers: "Should president-elect Barack Obama have to give up his BlackBerry?"

As of midday Tuesday, 50 per cent or respondents had said no, while only 18 per cent - clearly unfamiliar with how ubiquitous electronic communications have become - said he'll be too busy with other matters to bother with checking email.

Nine per cent, however, said Obama should give up the BlackBerry to avoid creating a record of presidential doings, while 24 per cent argued the very opposite: he should keep it in order to create a record of presidential doings.

Daniel said he agrees that holding onto his BlackBerry will only help to keep Obama honest.

"It makes him more transparent," said Daniel, who recently went through withdrawal symptoms of her own when her Berry went on the blink for days, leaving her in a communications no-man's land while vacationing in New York.

"If he doesn't mind that people will be able to read his exchanges in years to come, then why can't he hold onto it?"

Obama's not the first president to have to give up the conveniences of modern communication.

While Bill Clinton sent only two email messages as president and has reportedly never warmed to the habit, George W. Bush expressed sadness when he was forced to stop emailing in January 2001.

He even said recently he's looking forward to emailing "my buddies" when he returns to Texas from Washington.

But for Obama, losing his Berry is a particularly bitter irony considering his historic campaign for the presidency was largely launched on technological battle fronts - on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter and via emails and text messages.

He emailed friends and family and even actress Scarlett Johansson with the device. He kept his eye on it while attending his daughters' soccer games in Chicago. He was ridiculed for carrying it in a holster on his belt - something of a fashion faux pas among technology snobs.

"It's not just the flow of information," a mournful Obama said last week.

"What it has to do with is having mechanisms where you are interacting with people who are outside of the White House in a meaningful way. And I've got to look for every opportunity to do that - ways that aren't scripted, ways that aren't controlled ... ways of staying grounded."

There might be a solution on the horizon for Obama, however.

Some hand-held devices have been approved as secure enough to handle even classified documents, email and Web browsing, raising the possibility that perhaps Obama might be allowed some sort of Berry-ish gadget.

The General Dynamics' Sectera Edge is a combination phone-PDA that retails for a pricey US$3,350. It's been certified by the National Security Agency as being acceptable for top secret voice communications, e-mail and Web sites, and it's sturdy - able to withstand numerous four-foot drops onto concrete.

There was no immediate word from Obama's transition team about whether the phone might be an option for the president-elect.

 
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