Even if his staff check the security of Android, no one will make President Obama give up his BlackBerry, says Wayne Rash
The White House Communications Agency, a Pentagon unit responsible for the secure communications used by President Barack Obama and his staff, has begun testing Android phones from two manufacturers, Samsung and LG.
The report, from the Wall Street Journal, says that the testing is in its earliest stages. A White House spokesperson declined to comment on this report.
Obama loves his BlackBerry
President Obama is legendary in his affection for BlackBerry smartphones, and an earlier attempt to shift him to a secure, custom-built smartphone that wasn’t really very smart apparently failed, as the president has been seen recently still using a BlackBerry. Rumour has it that his current BlackBerry has been modified to make it secure enough for presidential use.
While some, including the Journal, have suggested that this testing is the end of BlackBerry, that isn’t necessarily true. In fact, just because the White House Communications Agency is testing other phones doesn’t mean the president is interested in changing. It’s the agency’s job to test new platforms to ensure they can be made secure to White House standards and to decide if it is possible for them to be highly secure – and exactly how secure.
In addition, the WHCA tests communications gear for everyone on the commander in chief’s staff, whether they actually work in the White House or are part of one of the other related staffs. There are a lot of mobile phones in use in the executive branch these days, after all. Perhaps more important, the Pentagon has been conducting an ongoing series of tests on phones from a variety of makers, including Apple and Nokia, as well as on a number of Android phones and on the BlackBerry 10 platform.
The reason for all of this diverse testing is pretty obvious. The US military can’t afford to rely on a single system of any kind. If such a single system were to be penetrated, then all of the military’s communications that use cellular technology could be suddenly insecure. One of the reasons for having multiple unrelated platforms is to limit the chances of that kind of vulnerability. So regardless of what the Department of Defense finds in its testing, the military, and likely the White House, will never become all-Android or all anything else.
Smart to use SecuSmart?
Despite the testing, BlackBerry is in no danger of being ousted from the White House or the Department of Defense. BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 is currently the most secure commercial infrastructure available for mobile devices. When the BlackBerry device is configured appropriately, it’s very secure, and with the right add-on technology, such as SecuSmart’s encryption chip, the BlackBerry can handle classified information, something other smartphones can’t do.
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel secures her BlackBerry Z10 from National Security Agency (NSA) intrusion using one of these phones with the SecuSmart chip. President Obama likely isn’t using SecuSmart, but it’s probable that he’s using something similar developed in conjunction with the Pentagon communications folks.
But SecuSmart isn’t the only provider of secure communications technology for mobile devices. This year CeBIT was full of them in response to the many prominent reports of NSA spying. Most of these products, including a new one from SecuSmart, will work on Android and iOS devices. In general, they all perform voice encryption, and some also perform data encryption.
None of the Android or iOS devices is qualified to handle classified data; only the BlackBerry 10 series of devices can handle any level of classified information. But even BlackBerry can’t handle material that needs to be protected at a high level, such as the nuclear launch codes, for example.
This means that devices that are currently being investigated will need to support software that will provide voice and data encryption as well as the ability to use a secure communications medium. Samsung is already working on such a system, Samsung Knox, which will provide a level of protection similar to what BlackBerry provides.
Knox uses what the company calls a Knox Container, which is a secure virtual environment that runs under Android. In theory it’s similar to the operation of the work-related environment of BlackBerry Balance, and it keeps containerized apps separate from the rest of the device, including providing a separate home page, launcher and apps.
Samsung’s Knox is a good beginning for enterprise security needs. It’s unclear whether it’s NSA-proof, since Samsung has made no such claims. LG, at last check, does not appear to have anything like Knox. But there’s no reason that the DoD or one of its contractors can’t create a similar containerized system for Android that would work on either company’s products. It’s worth noting that there aren’t any Chinese products that the Pentagon is looking at for any level of secure communications, including, at this point, the Apple iPhone.
None of what the Pentagon is doing adds up to the White House tossing out the BlackBerry despite some dire predictions. What’s going on here is that the WHCA is doing its due diligence and also ensuring that there’s no single point of failure in its communications. But let’s face it, if Mr. Obama wants to use a BlackBerry, that’s what he’ll use. He is, after all, the commander in chief, and the military has to follow his orders.
Originally published on eWeek.