Apropos of the ongoing ruckus about President-elect Obama’s BlackBerry — the so-called “BarackBerry” — an interesting question is coming to the fore: why is the President, or even a prominent Senator for that matter, using a civilian mobile phone? With matters of national security, policy, and locations of our most powerful citizens being beamed through the air, it behooves us as a technologically savvy country to provide a cellular solution for heads of state that doesn’t have to be worried about.
It’s led us to a long discussion and rumination: what would such a phone look like?
The major complaint against Obama’s BlackBerry is security. This is more of an infrastructure complaint. The presidential mobile would likely be BlackBerry-esque but not working through the RIM network, which, while relatively secure, is far from impregnable — especially when the target is a such a hot one. What is needed is for the Office of the President to get special access to a military, or at least military-grade, network or VPN, whereby all his traffic is obscured, redirected, and encrypted to the satisfaction of a board of technological advisers. Carriers would have to be on board, obviously, but as long as the transmissions are sufficiently encrypted it shouldn’t matter whether they’re being relayed by Verizon, AT&T, or Orange.
As for locking the device itself, obviously a four-digit number or swipe pattern won’t do; it’ll need a fingerprint and voice recognition capability — we have to balance size and usability here with security, so retina or other more stringent biometrics are out of the question. How about RFID tagging the President? Somehow I doubt that’s something he’d agree to.
If an actual BlackBerry-type device was used, the government could even license the server technology from RIM and have their own servers relaying the info instead of RIM’s. Similar steps can be taken for any other service provider. After all, there’s only going to be the one device (or a few more for cabinet or whatever), so it wouldn’t be too hard to set it up.
The GPS is another issue. But once again, why should the Commander-in-Chief be using civilian GPS? Not only is it limited in precision, but it’s less secure and there’s no secret more closely-held by the Secret Service than the president’s location in times of crisis. Wouldn’t want anyone busting in the back door and making the BarackBerry ping a satellite. So again it’s a military solution. High-precision, good encryption, and only on demand GPS, activated by a password or signal only known by, say, the President, his cabinet, and military of a certain rank.
Triangulation based on cell tower connectivity is another problem, and one less tractable. Maybe have clone devices spoofing his location at all times? Maybe have the president put one of 100 SIM-type cards in every morning, each with a different ID? Tag his IMEI so any searches or requests with it are traced or blocked? Rotate the phone’s hardware identifier every few minutes? These are possible solutions, but they’d have to be investigated in detail.
All the features you need, except the App Store
What about the interface and capabilities? First, he’d want email. Obviously it wouldn’t just get firstname.lastname@example.org (I have a FilePlanet account under that address), but a couple special addresses which in all likelihood already exist: probably one personal, one policy-related, and one “Batphone” style super-secret address that is likewise known by only 30 or 40 people in the world. IM? Probably not, and similarly text messaging seems superfluous. He’s just going to have to get used to tweeting from his laptop. Mapping probably won’t be necessary either; I doubt the president ever really needs to look for coffee in his area, or ask for directions. Games and random apps can probably go, although depending on what the phone runs there wouldn’t be any harm in having Tetris or things like a notepad app or to-do list on there. They could even be custom made.
Video capability would have to be there, perhaps even two-way video if they can wangle it. That might be asking too much, though. At the very least it should be able to show media like presentations, map and route information, and clips of say dignitaries he’s going to meet, or his own personal videos (why not?).
The president-elect has raised concerns about privacy. The fourth amendment applies to the Prez at least in some mutated form, and he doesn’t need people subpoenaing every email he sends to his wife and kids about this or that private matter. Yet there must be a balance, and the president can’t just have a “black” line to issue commands like “when’s that invasion of Canada happening again Colin?” or “Terminate Devin Coldewey with extreme violence.” I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t think of a way to make this part work. The machinations of government are not by and large not designed or appropriate for public consumption, so this is something that would have to be hashed out very carefully.
In case of being left at a dinner or party, it would have to have remote capabilities up the yin yang, authorized only by the President or majority of congress. They could access, delete, or possibly even destroy the phone physically based on a separate network that would have to be made impossible to block except physically. Would-be thieves would have to go underground or into a Faraday cage to avoid phone self-destruction. Local storage might be discouraged for any critical info; even a HDD that’s fallen from orbit can sometimes be resuscitated.
Made in China, probably
I guess what we’ve got is a sort of super-secure Peek with media, two-way video (maybe), and military GPS.
So what about the hardware? From all the reliance on military tech you might say the phone should just give him a piece of military hardware. The thing is, what is needed is essentially a consumer device, compact and easily usable, with military-grade capability. After all, the president doesn’t drive around in a tank and fly in a B-52; he uses modified civilian technology for all this stuff. Very heavily modified, but still. (Plus, that one on the right uses the treasonous WinMo)
I’m told that MI-6 uses Sony-Ericsson exclusively, but it wouldn’t be that hard to ask any handset manufacturer to custom-design a device or retrofit another one, maybe even depending on what the President uses. This time around it’s a Blackberry, so on November 5th someone calls up RIM and says “Give us 10 of your best guys for a government contract, and we’d like to buy a 4-year license on this and that technology.” But maybe in 2012 (or 2016!) it’s going to be a Palm device (after seeing the Pre, that’s not such a stretch) or, yes I suppose, an Apple one. So they repeat the process. Tying the government to any one manufacturer or interface designer would be, I think, a mistake.
I believe the Obama Presidency is a good place to begin this reinvention of the President’s communications. His platform involved ideas of both online connectivity and transparency of government, and this could (if done right) dovetail with both those promises. The cost would not be that great, although for good or ill it would add a whole new layer of communication for lobbyists, lawyers, and Presdidential entourage to fill, analyze, and bring up in court. Done right, however, it could be powerful, secure, and useful. Here’s hoping they’ve got already set DARPA on it.