Why Obama Uses a BlackBerry, Not an iPhone

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 5 2013 1:44 PM

Why Obama Still Uses a BlackBerry

Obama's famous BlackBerry
Obama's famous BlackBerry.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama is the world’s most prominent BlackBerry user. For years he has clung to the original smartphone even as the rest of the world has moved on. But it turns out that even he wouldn’t mind upgrading to an iPhone, in theory. (He does seem to love his iPad.) The problem: He’s not allowed to.

In a speech to some young folks about Obamacare at the White House yesterday, Obama digressed into tech territory in order to draw another strained analogy between healthcare.gov and one of the world’s most popular consumer products. From the transcript:

Now, I am not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone.  (Laughter.)  I don’t know what your bills are.  I have noticed that Sasha and Malia seem to spend a lot of time on it.  (Laughter.)  My suspicion is that for a lot of you, between your cable bill, your phone bill, you're spending more than 100 bucks a month.  The idea that you wouldn’t want to make sure that you've got the health security and financial security that comes with health insurance for less than that price, you guys are smarter than that.  And most young people are, as well.  
Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Advertisement

Leaving aside the dubious claim that most young people are smart enough to prefer health insurance to an iPhone and cable TV, Obama’s remarks raised an interesting tech question that few media outlets have bothered to answer: What is it, exactly, that makes the president’s BlackBerry more secure than an iPhone?

For starters, there’s the fact that his BlackBerry is apparently locked down in multiple ways, including a personal email address to which only 10 contacts have access. That’s one of the concessions he had to make in order to be allowed to keep a smartphone at all when he took office. As computer-security blogger Graham Cluley points out:

… A smartphone is, at its most basic level, a tracking device. It knows where you are in the world, and in some cases can geolocate you with extraordinary precision. That’s why you need to be really careful about what apps you allow to record your location, and where they might share that information.

BlackBerry has long enjoyed a reputation for greater security in its devices than Apple or Android, thanks to its strong encryption practices. As AFP notes, that’s one reason it remains popular with Washington officials, even as its market share slides everywhere else. Yet even two years ago Ars Technica was reporting that iPhone and Android devices were catching up in security features like encryption, forced PIN entry, and the ability to wipe your phone remotely if it’s stolen. On the other hand, that same piece added that organizations find it easier to control how their employees use BlackBerries, including app installations and operating-system upgrades. The mere idea of Obama trying out iMessage or automatically upgrading to iOS 7 before it’s been fully vetted would probably give the Secret Service heart palpitations. They probably figure: Why take the risk?

The more sinister explanation is that U.S. security officials know of big holes in Apple’s privacy and security features—because the government itself has exploited them. For one thing, Apple was one of several major tech companies identified in leaked NSA documents as being part of the agency’s PRISM surveillance program. And while Apple has insisted that its users’ iMessages are secure, hackers have called those claims into question.

In short, no one knows for sure why the president isn’t allowed to use an iPhone. But Cluley neatly distills what will surely be the main takeaway for the security-conscious consumer: “If the people responsible for security give you a nod and a wink that maybe an iPhone *isn’t* the most sensible device in the world for an American president to rely upon for his privacy and security, I guess they must have their reasons, right?”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Behold

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 6:24 PM The GOP Can’t Quit “Willie Horton” Even though they promise to do so, again and again.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 5:39 PM Whole Foods Desperately Wants Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.