The press has been all over President-Elect Barack Obama's addiction to his BlackBerry and the possibility that he might have to give it up for reasons of national security. But no one in the media seems to be asking the most logical follow-up question: Is the cybertechnology that can compromise the future chief executive's BlackBerry also a threat to mobile devices being used every day by thousands of senior executives in corporate America?
One security expert, Ron Cochoran, president of RER Technology, answers that question quite succinctly: "If the president can't use it for security reasons, then there's obviously something wrong with the security system."
The prohibition against BlackBerrys in the White House actually started with President George W. Bush's administration. "We made a judgment call prior to September 11, 2001, that people in the White House could not use a BlackBerry," recalls Joe Hagin, who served as deputy chief of staff for operations for seven years and is now the CEO of Jet Support Services, a jet-leasing company.
Ironically, the Bush White House suspended that policy for some staffers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "On September 11, we had tremendous communications challenges, while people on the Hill [Congress] had communications [through their mobile devices]. I made the decision that we couldn't operate without them. We bought 200, then 400, and finally about 600. They are common around the executive branch, and more than just BlackBerrys."
But users of the White House mobile devices are restricted in what they can do, to reduce the chance of cyberespionage: GPS is disabled, no one is permitted to transmit classified data over an unsecured device, and mobile devices cannot be used overseas where the local networks are often vulnerable, Hagin says. As Hagin knows firsthand, there are many highly sophisticated cyberespionage tools available on the cheap and sold online that could compromise a government or a corporation.
Economic and national security at stake
While the consensus of opinion of the security experts InfoWorld consulted is that no system is 100 percent secure, they also agree that wireless technology is inherently less secure than a wired desktop behind a firewall. But even desktop-based communications systems may have more risks in their information being snooped once the e-mails, IMs, and so on leave your network.
So, what's at stake when your execs are using wireless devices such as smartphones and laptops, or working at home or at a coffee shop on their laptops? As it turns out, far more than a CEO's contact list and calendar. On the line, say the experts, are billions of dollars in proprietary intellectual property and the maintenance of a continuous flow of capital, the lifeblood of business. Not to mention the fact that as private industry supplies more and more services to the government, at risk is the infrastructure that directly affects our national security.