The White House is a key BlackBerry customer and President Obama its highest-profile user. But that may be about to change.
The White House is in the process of testing smartphones from Samsung and LG Electronics, the Wall Street Journal reported March 20.
The White House Communications Agency, a military unit in charge of President Obama’s communications, and the White House’s internal technology team are testing the phones, a source told the Journal, adding that any implementation would be “months away.”
A Department of Defense spokesperson confirmed that the White House, “consistent with the rest of the Department of Defense, is piloting and using a variety of mobile devices.”
Kevin Burden, director of Mobility at research firm Strategy Analytics, told eWEEK that testing and switching are different things.
“The U.S. government has to give equal opportunity to a lot of vendors,” said Burden. “But all things being equal, they’ll always go with the most secure solution.”
BlackBerry told eWEEK in a statement, “We value the long-term relationship we’ve had with the White House and have been securing their mobile communications for more than a decade. … Governments test new technologies frequently, but nevertheless the U.S. government continues to choose BlackBerry for its unmatched security and cost effectiveness.”
The BarackBerry Years
Obama made headlines after his 2008 election by saying of his BlackBerry that White House security would have to “pry it out of my hands.”
It was common practice at the time for the president to give up his mobile device. George Bush gave up email when he took office, and Bill Clinton, according to CNN, sent just two emails during his time in the Oval Office—one to test if his account worked and another to astronaut John Glenn before he went back into space in 1998.
Obama said at the time that he wanted his device so he could keep grounded, and in “the flow of everyday life.”
Ultimately, Obama became the first U.S. president to carry a smartphone, an even more security-enhanced version of the BlackBerry, with access to a limited number of contacts. The specially designed smartphone was said to cost $3,350 and was quickly dubbed the “BarackBerry.”
In 2013, the president commented to the press that daughters Malia and Sasha spend a lot of time on their iPhones, but that, for security reasons, he wasn’t “allowed” to have one.
Will he be allowed to carry an Android?
Samsung, in recent years, has made considerable investments in security and enterprise-grade solutions, wanting to capture the enterprise customers that BlackBerry continues to lose, as users press for more popular smartphones.
In 2012, Samsung introduced the SAFE (Samsung Approved for Enterprises) designation, and a year later Knox, a secure-container and device management solution.
At the 2014 Mobile World Congress trade show in February, Samsung unveiled an upgraded version, Knox 2.0, which includes container-based features that support most apps from the Google Play store (a win for developers); support for SE Android policy configurations from providers of other third-party containers, such as Good and MobileIron; and TrustZone-Protected Certificate Management, a feature that offers support for specific industry standards and ensures that data is encrypted should the system be compromised.
Further, Samsung’s newest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S5, features an on-screen fingerprint reader.
BlackBerry, in its statement to eWEEK, added, “Vendors such as Samsung and LG still have a long way to go to catch up to meet the government’s stringent requirements and certifications. BlackBerry’s operating system has already received the highest security approvals from the United States, Great Britain and NATO.”
The Department of Defense last year transitioned from an exclusively BlackBerry platform to a mixed-OS environment, adding iPhones and iPads.
Obama has said that he reads his intelligence briefings on an iPad—albeit one that the National Security Agency’s John Levine has called “neutered,” explaining that it doesn’t connect to the Internet. For, again, security reasons.
Photo credit: Official White House photo by Peter Souza.