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How Obama's BlackBerry got secured

Around January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama took over the office of president of the United States, there was quite a lot of media attention about the fact that he had to give up his BlackBerry, because it was considered to be a security risk.

This caused almost world wide media attention, but the follow-up was less accurately covered and a number of different stories were told. Here we will show that Obama actually kept his beloved BlackBerry, but only after it had been secured by special encryption software and some additional security measures.

Barack Obama using his BlackBerry 8830 during the election campaign in 2008
(Photo: Getty Images)

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, also used a BlackBerry during the 2000 presidential campaign, but had to give it up, as well as the use of any e-mail software, upon taking office. Three days earlier, he sent out a final e-mail to 42 friends and family members to inform them that he would no longer correspond electronically.

Eight years later, Barack Obama was also forced to give up his BlackBerry, not only because of concerns that its communications and e-mail could be intercepted, but also because of the Presidential Records Act of 1978. This makes all written White House communications public property and subject to examination under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

However, this time Obama definitely wanted keep using this popular business phone to stay in touch with people outside the White House bubble. Therefore, the Secret Service, The White House Communications Agency (WHCA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) went looking for a solution.

US President Obama using a silver BlackBerry 8830

Sectéra Edge

Some media suggested Obama had to change his BlackBerry for the Sectéra Edge, a highly secured PDA, which is produced by General Dynamics for the US military. But the Sectéra Edge is quite big, heavy (340 grams) and bulky and therefore hardly convenient for someone used to a BlackBerry. This solution would also require everyone that Obama would like to communicate with to have the same phone, which is priced between 2650,- and 3350,- USD. Secure communications are only possible if both ends use the same encryption method.

According to other sources, the Sectéra Edge was only used in addition to Obama's BlackBerry, until a permanent solution was worked out. Reports weren't clear about how exactly these two devices were combined. Probably the Sectéra Edge acted like an encryptor, which was plugged into the BlackBerry, so Obama could keep using this device to make a call or send out an e-mail, which then went through the Sectéra Edge, encrypting it, before going over the telecommunications network.

The Sectéra Edge, manufactured by General Dynamics


That latter, temporary solution must have been even more cumbersome, so a compromise was made, in which president Obama could keep using a BlackBerry, but equipped with a software package to encrypt phone calls and text and email messages up to the level of Top Secret.

For this purpose, the security agencies choose the SecurVoice application, which was developed by The Genesis Key, in cooperation with engineers from BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM). After the NSA did all the necessary tests and checking to make sure the software met federal standards like FIPS 140-2, the highly secured BlackBerry was delivered to the president somewhere in May or June 2009. He also gave up his old e-mail address and switched to a new one, which is kept secret.

Maybe we can see the new, secured BlackBerry in this picture below, where there are two BlackBerrys lying in front of Obama. The silver one seems to be the BlackBerry 8830, which he already used during the election campaign. The black one, probably a BlackBerry 8900, could then be the new secure one, as we can see the president using this one in later pictures:

President Barack Obama works with Jon Favreau, director of speechwriting, on the Normandy speech
aboard Air Force One enroute to Paris. In front of him are a black and a silver Blackberry.
(White House photo by Pete Souza, June 5, 2009 - click for a bigger picture!)

Detail from the picture above, showing the two BlackBerrys

The secure BlackBerry was not only issued to the president, but also to a small group of people with whom he likes to stay in close contact with. This because, as said, it's only possible to have secure communications if both ends are using the same device. This limited Obama's goal of keeping in touch with the outside world: encryption (still) means exclusion.

The number of people able to message and call the president is probably only between ten and twenty. Included are vice-president Biden, Obama's chief of staff and some of his top advisers, his press secretary, first lady Michelle Obama, a few other family members, and a small group of personal friends from Chicago.

The Genesis Key

The SecureVoice software for the presidential BlackBerry was developed for a small company called The Genesis Key, Inc., based in Washington DC. This company was founded in October 2008 by W. Steven Garrett, who took the name from an item used in the 1986 computer game The Legend of Zelda.

The software was developed in the previous four years, apparantly for one of the projects of Steve I. Cooper, a former CIO (Chief Information Officer) for the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the American Red Cross. He is now a member of the advisory board of SecurDigital, Inc., a firm founded in October 2009 by Bruce Magown and Steven Garrett to distribute the SecurVoice software applications.

Steven Garrett is a man with a quite surprising background. His Linked-In profiles show that he has been involved in a very wide range of businesess, like manufacturing plants (Fannies Fat free Cheesecakes and Fat Free Burger, providing microwave-ready cheeseburgers to military commissaries!) and marketing & sales (Lion Sportswear and Faded Glory Jeans). He also developed a highly secure appartment building, named Garrett Place. At his twitter account he describes himself as "Proven Rainmaker, Change Agent, Strategist, and Driving Force for Unprecedented, Exponential Growth in Revenues, Earnings, and Market Valuation".


The Genesis Key released the SecurVoice software in December 2008, claiming this to be the world's first completely secure voice and data encryption solution (SecurVoice should not be confused with Secure-Voice.com).

Allthough there were already a number of other hardware and software encryption solutions, the SecurVoice application should able to protect global voice connections between and within all types of cell, satellite, PBX, SDR and VOIP phones and phone systems. SecurVoice is 100% Java based, which should make it device- and carrier-independent and compatible with all legacy systems.

Each phone can be loaded with up to three levels of security, each one accessible through a separate icon and recognizable by a different ringtone. When dialing a number and this number has a cryptographic key associated with it, then the call is automatically placed as a secured call. If a phone number has no cryptographic key associated with it, then the cell phone operates normally and the call is placed unencrypted.

The SecurVoice software comes in two versions:
- Phone-to-Phone (P2P), where secure calls are made directly from one cell phone to another. The price for government users is 1795,- USD per application.
- Phone-to-Server (P2S), where secure calls are routed from the phone to an enterprise server and back. The price of a server license is between 2500,- and 25.000,- USD.

It's likely, that for Obama the server solution was chosen. This allows a centralized key management, monitoring of all secure calls and record keeping of the messages. One source says the president may have to wait up to 50 minutes for an e-mail reply, as the system actively sniffs out incoming messages for viruses or Trojan horses.

Overview of the SecurVoice application options
(by The Genesis Key/SecurDigital)


The SecurVoice software features a dual-layered, or hybrid encryption scheme, which means it combines symmetrical and asymmetrical encryption algorithms. It performs the voice encryption in real time by using a fast symmetric cipher, using a strong key. This key is then encrypted with a public-key or asymmetrical cryptosystem, like RSA or ECC, and transmitted together with the encrypted message. This is also how the vast majority of present-day communications encryption works.

The SecurVoice symmetric encryption uses a 256-bit session (conversation) key, which replaces the encryption every second with non-reoccurring numbers. This session key is a combination (salted hash) of the sender Base Secure Key (stored in the recipient key store) and a random session key. According to the manufacturer, SecurVoice uses classified Type 1 encryption algorithms, which are restricted to government and military users. For corporate users, public crypto algorithms like Triple DES and AES are used.

In case of a SecurVoice enterprise server, the software converts voice into encrypted data, which is then sent over the carrier network to the SecurVoice Enterprise Server where it is decrypted. It is then re-encrypted and sent back over the carrier network to the receiving phone, where it is decrypted and converted back to voice. It's also possible to select different encryption algorithms, so that, for example, encryption from a cell phone to the enterprise server may be the AES algorithm with a 128-bit, while from the server to the receiving phone this may be done by using Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC).

President Obama using his BlackBerry 8900 in the limousine while traveling
from the University of Indonesia to the airport in Jakarta, Indonesia.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza, November 10, 2010)

Security risks

As Obama wanted to keep using a BlackBerry device, the security solution is software only. This still leaves risks like compromised hardware and hacking by means of social engineering. Therefore, some security specialists say that it's not impossible to hack Obama's BlackBerry and that foreign states and other hackers will likely try to do so.

To minimize these risks, the secured BlackBerrys prevent forwarding e-mail messages from the president and sending him attachments. His secret e-mail address is likely to be changed regularly as well and Obama's friends and staff members were lectured about these security issues.

Another risk of the president using a BlackBerry, like a cell phone in general, is that enemies can try to track the president's location in real-time, even when GPS is disabled. Every cell phone regularly transmits it's IMEI-number to the cell tower, and this can be intercepted by devices like a Triggerfish. How this tracking can be done, and countered, is described in this, respectively this article.

One source says the presidential BlackBerry can only connect to a secure base station, which can be used to hide the IMEI-number of the device and thus prevent tracking it. This would mean the White House Communications Agency has to carry such a secure base station wherever the president goes.

There must be even a secure base station inside the presidential limousine, as we can see in the picture above. First because using a foreign cell phone network would be a big security risk, but also because the limousine is most likely constructed like a Faraday cage, and therefore a BlackBerry could only be used if there's a base station in the car itself.

Sources and Links

- FoxNews.com: Obama Getting Super-Secure BlackBerry
- New York Times: Symbol of Elite Access: E-Mail to the Chief
- Washington Times: Obama soon to get secure BlackBerry
- The Telegraph: Barack Obama's BlackBerry 'no fun'
- September 2010: The X-Change Corporation Acquires Genesis Key, Inc.
- Interview with Steven Garrett: Wireless Technology Risks and Enterprise Security
- See also: securvoice.blogspot.com

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