Why Obama Still Uses a BlackBerry

Obama's famous BlackBerry

Obama’s famous BlackBerry.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama is the world’s most prominent BlackBerry user. For years he has clung to the original smartphone even as the rest of the world has moved on. But it turns out that even he wouldn’t mind upgrading to an iPhone, in theory. (He does seem to love his iPad.) The problem: He’s not allowed to.

In a speech to some young folks about Obamacare at the White House yesterday, Obama digressed into tech territory in order to draw another strained analogy between healthcare.gov and one of the world’s most popular consumer products. From the transcript:

Now, I am not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone.  (Laughter.)  I don’t know what your bills are.  I have noticed that Sasha and Malia seem to spend a lot of time on it.  (Laughter.)  My suspicion is that for a lot of you, between your cable bill, your phone bill, you’re spending more than 100 bucks a month.  The idea that you wouldn’t want to make sure that you’ve got the health security and financial security that comes with health insurance for less than that price, you guys are smarter than that.  And most young people are, as well.  

Leaving aside the dubious claim that most young people are smart enough to prefer health insurance to an iPhone and cable TV, Obama’s remarks raised an interesting tech question that few media outlets have bothered to answer: What is it, exactly, that makes the president’s BlackBerry more secure than an iPhone?

For starters, there’s the fact that his BlackBerry is apparently locked down in multiple ways, including a personal email address to which only 10 contacts have access. That’s one of the concessions he had to make in order to be allowed to keep a smartphone at all when he took office. As computer-security blogger Graham Cluley points out:

… A smartphone is, at its most basic level, a tracking device. It knows where you are in the world, and in some cases can geolocate you with extraordinary precision. That’s why you need to be really careful about what apps you allow to record your location, and where they might share that information.

BlackBerry has long enjoyed a reputation for greater security in its devices than Apple or Android, thanks to its strong encryption practices. As AFP notes, that’s one reason it remains popular with Washington officials, even as its market share slides everywhere else. Yet even two years ago Ars Technica was reporting that iPhone and Android devices were catching up in security features like encryption, forced PIN entry, and the ability to wipe your phone remotely if it’s stolen. On the other hand, that same piece added that organizations find it easier to control how their employees use BlackBerries, including app installations and operating-system upgrades. The mere idea of Obama trying out iMessage or automatically upgrading to iOS 7 before it’s been fully vetted would probably give the Secret Service heart palpitations. They probably figure: Why take the risk?

The more sinister explanation is that U.S. security officials know of big holes in Apple’s privacy and security features—because the government itself has exploited them. For one thing, Apple was one of several major tech companies identified in leaked NSA documents as being part of the agency’s PRISM surveillance program. And while Apple has insisted that its users’ iMessages are secure, hackers have called those claims into question.

In short, no one knows for sure why the president isn’t allowed to use an iPhone. But Cluley neatly distills what will surely be the main takeaway for the security-conscious consumer: “If the people responsible for security give you a nod and a wink that maybe an iPhone *isn’t* the most sensible device in the world for an American president to rely upon for his privacy and security, I guess they must have their reasons, right?”