Published October 22, 2015
Why can't President Barack Obama use an iPhone?
"I'm not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone," Obama told a White House audience Wednesday, according to Agence France-Presse. Instead, the news agency said, Obama has to stick to his BlackBerry, a valued brand in Washington due to its strict security controls and strong encryption.
That's not the entire story, however. BlackBerrys also offer a high level of organizational control and security that few other smartphones can match.
Command and control
Obama's model almost certainly sends and receives all its email and instant messages through a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), an in-house email forwarder controlled by the user's organization. Each BlackBerry-issuing organization can set its own security rules and procedures, and you can assume that the White House's would be pretty tough.
Consumer BlackBerrys, in contrast, send and receive messages through the BlackBerry company's own servers, which are fairly secure, but out of the White House and National Security Agency's controls — and, because BlackBerry is a Canadian company, often outside of the United States as well.
Most iPhones and Android phones route email and instant messages through each message service's own servers — Apple for iCloud and Messages, Google for Gmail and Google Talk, Yahoo for Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Messenger — rather than through any single central control point.
Numerous reports from 2009 indicated that some months after taking office as president, Obama received a customized BlackBerry 8830 World Edition smartphone from BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. (The Waterloo, Ontario, company has since changed its name to BlackBerry.)
The handset reportedly incorporated voice-encryption software developed by the National Security Agency. Since Obama's phone is apparently one of a kind, there's a good chance that even more secure hardware-based encryption is also onboard.
Between his inauguration and the delivery of his custom BlackBerry, multiple reports indicated Obama may have used the military-grade Sectera Edge smartphone made by General Dynamics, though we couldn't find any photos of him using one.
There are, however, dozens of photos from Obama's first term showing him checking email on what appears to be a BlackBerry 8830, and one from a trip abroad that shows him speaking into a BlackBerry Curve 8900. An Associated Press photo from Obama's second inauguration in January 2013 shows him checking messages on what looks like a flatter-bodied, later-model BlackBerry Q10.
Obama reportedly uses an email address known only to a dozen or so close aides and family members. Other reports state that each incoming email message is manually screened for malware and malicious links.
What few photos show is Obama actually speaking on a BlackBerry. Instead, when the president has been photographed speaking on a cellphone outside the White House or his presidential limousine, he's almost always using a flip or slider feature phone, possibly belonging to an aide or campaign worker.
It may be that the president isn't allowed to speak on his BlackBerry outside of controlled environments. BlackBerry voice calls are normally handled by regular cellular carriers, not a BES, but the White House and presidential limousine may have their own cellular networks.
As for feature phones, those relatively primitive models are more difficult to infect with malware or spyware than more sophisticated smartphones.
While the president may be forbidden from handling an iPhone, he does have an iPad, reportedly given to him personally by then- Apple chief Steve Jobs. It's a safe bet that iPad connects only to the White House Wi-Fi network.