The President and His BlackBerry: Much Ado About Something?

Like every chief executive before him, President-elect Barack Obama will be making personal sacrifices as he assumes the role of U.S. president. He won’t be able to stroll down a beach without the world watching. He will likely worry over how his daughters will adjust to living in a fishbowl. He may end his term, or terms, with a lot more gray in his hair than he would have picked up as a senator. He will almost certainly have to give up his beloved BlackBerry. Past presidents probably can’t relate to the pain that’s going to cause.

“Obama is much more fluent in technology than any other U.S. president to date,” Rob Enderle, principal of the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. “Tech is a part of who he is — he is used to it, and part of his effectiveness is tied to tech.”

Losing the BlackBerry, Enderle speculated, could actually hamper Obama’s effectiveness at doing his job.

Unless you are a self-proclaimed Crackberry, it may be hard to understand that last statement. However, putting aside for the moment the issue of why Obama needs to have his BlackBerry, there’s a larger question to explore: Why does he need to give it up in the first place?

Think about it. Congresspeople live and die by their personal devices. After all, when a patent lawsuit threatened to make Research In Motion go dark, the greatest hue and cry came from Washington, Enderle recalled.

Security Issues

If legislators can have their BlackBerrys, then why can’t the president? Security, of course, is the response. Indeed, Obama’s phone records for a standard cell phone account were accessed by Verizon Wireless employees during the campaign.

“Although I greatly sympathize with Obama on his PDA predicament, there are security risks whenever any e-mail goes off into the air — on landlines and on the Internet — and if anyone’s private conversations should remain private, it should be the president’s,” said Raymond Van Dyke, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Merchant & Gould.

“Also, as president, all communications would be official and archived for posterity. Flippant e-mail exchanges could have a whole new life in fandom and the conspiracy universe,” Van Dyke told TechNewsWorld.

In addition to the threat posed by hackers intercepting presidential missives sent or received using a BlackBerry or other mobile device, there’s the possibility that sensitive information could be exposed if such a device were lost, noted Keith Crosley of e-mail security vendor Proofpointin a blog post.

There’s also the possibility that it could be tracked, revealing the president’s approximate whereabouts, he added.

Rules of the Road

Still, it is possible to secure a BlackBerry. Might there be some way the president could safely use the device? Perhaps he could refrain from sending e-mail but still receive messages, Van Dyke suggested.

The use of a BlackBerry would not pose a problem if the president were to adhere strictly to the rules of the cyber-highway, said attorney Ronald J. Levine, who chairs the best practices committee at Herrick, Feinstein and advises corporate clients on their e-mail policies and liabilities.

“If he insists on keeping it, President-elect Obama should emblazon on his BlackBerry — right next to the presidential seal — the words ‘think twice, click once,'” Levine told TechNewsWorld. The warning is a reference to the title of a paper he wrote on e-mail use in the corporate world.

“There are possible costs but also benefits of his being able to use a BlackBerry, and the costs and benefits are the same we see in the corporate world,” Levine said. “The benefits are that he can communicate quickly and while mobile, and he need not rely on the immediate availability of those with whom he wants to communicate. That’s crucial in government and in business, because in both cases, you don’t want to slow down the day. The problem is that — as with all written communications — e-mail is permanent, and you should always think whether a phone call or meeting would be more appropriate.”

A bigger problem is that e-mail messages are easily forwarded and possibly misunderstood, Levine added. People tend to communicate casually when using e-mail, rather than deliberating as they would when crafting a letter that might go through several drafts before being signed.

Should he manage to keep his BlackBerry, Obama would be well advised to avoid venting in transmissions, Levine said. “Informal e-mail comments can be twisted and taken out of context. The rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t want to see it on the front page of the morning newspaper, don’t put it in an e-mail.”

Connecting With Everyday Joe

There are compelling arguments in favor of President Obama keeping his BlackBerry while in office, Hyun-Yeul Lee, assistant professor of communication at Boston University, told TechNewsWorld, including “continuing to connect with the everyday Joe.”

In one of his interviews, Obama spoke of being able to reach outside the DC administration circle to connect with the everyday people, Lee recalled, which would keep him “grounded.”

Of course, there will always be attempts at snooping and hacking that raise security and privacy issues, she continued, but “he will have an army of staff specifically filtering information and distributing it to the right office.”

Digital simplicity and mobility will drive the evolution of established communication protocols, she predicted.

“The president is the leader; however, we have to remember that the administration is also part of the team in relation to the president,” Lee said. “Because every decision and message is crucial, his team must be on the same page, and [realize] that time is of the essence. … To get the message out clearly, staying true to the core message, face-to-face interaction is still the answer.”

It would make a lot of sense for Obama to have an electronic communication device for his personal grounding, she concluded. “Metaphorically, a telephone on a desk is still tied to the office. If any president can have a mobile device in his pocket, it will be a reassuring object [symbolizing] that he is not tied down, and that he has a sense of privacy and connection with the everyday people that helped him get there.”

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