The BlackBerry outages that spread across the globe this week may prompt more congressional staffers to switch to trendier kinds of smartphones. But because of cybersecurity concerns, that may not be so smart.
Already, BlackBerrys no longer dominate on Capitol Hill. In the past year, lawmakers have allowed more smartphone options, letting staffers do their work with iPhones and Android phones. In doing so, Congress has benefited from the speed and utility of gadgets that have caught fire among consumers. No problem with that, right? Well, maybe, except that all smartphones aren’t created equal. When House and Senate staffers switch off their BlackBerrys, which many private-sector workers aren’t allowed to do, they do so at their own security risk—which can be significant.
It’s not by chance that BlackBerrys are No. 1 in government offices: The phone’s security system is hard to crack. BlackBerrys have embedded encryption technology that makes it very difficult for hackers to snoop on e-mails and messages. Governments around the world have condoned the use of BlackBerry devices for restricted information, and the United States is no different. “We are the preferred technology in government for a reason,” a spokesman for BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion said, estimating that about 1 million U.S. government employees use BlackBerrys. BlackBerry products account for 36 percent of all smartphone sales to government customers worldwide, according to a Forrester Research global survey; Nokia ranks second, at 29 percent, then Apple with 22 percent.
But as congressional staff members kept asking permission to use iPhones and Android devices, the House and Senate came under pressure to move beyond the BlackBerry. The allure of Apple devices was their ease of use, as well as the savings from staffers switching from paper printouts to tablets. In the House, the chief administrative officer began testing the iPhone on the chamber’s network almost as soon as it came out in 2007. When Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., decided to go largely paperless at the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee this year, she framed it as a cost-saving measure. The committee spent $8,900 for 21 iPads, one for each lawmaker and a few senior staffers, paid for by using in-house specialists instead of contractors to upgrade its information-technology systems.
The House began to support iPhones and iPads for staff members in April 2010—1,500 of them to date. And iPads were first allowed on the House floor this year, under the majority Republicans’ new rules. The Senate supports BlackBerrys and iPhones—no Android phones so far.
Congress went to some lengths to make these devices safe as well as smart. Users are forced to download an application made by Good Technology—“bulletproof” mobile-security software—before they may access congressional e-mail with iPhones or Android phones. This adds another layer of safety to the cell phone, although some users complain that the security makes their e-mail work less fluidly. The congressional iPhones can now encrypt e-mail and lock automatically if left unused for a while; if a phone is lost, its memory can be erased remotely.
President Obama uses a BlackBerry because it is considered the safest choice. But even with its state-of-the-art security, his device required upgrades before it could become the First Phone. The White House Communications Agency and the National Security Agency collaborated with the manufacturer on security software developed specifically for the president.
For years, the Defense Department issued only secure BlackBerrys (without cameras) because of concerns about iPhone security. That’s slowly changing as the Pentagon rolls out secure iPhones and iPads capable of handling classified material. Most military and civilian personnel still use BlackBerrys, although Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a secure iPhone and receives his daily intelligence and military briefing—one of the most highly classified documents in the world—on a secure iPad.
But even with the security upgrades, experts say, iPhones and Android devices can’t match the BlackBerry for most users. Although most smartphones can encrypt messages, few encryption technologies are trusted as much as Research In Motion’s. That the BlackBerry seems so 20th century also helps. Many hackers are drawn to writing viruses for the shiniest, newest devices, noted Mike Murray, managing partner at Mad Security in Henderson, Nev. “It’s not nearly as cool to write viruses for BlackBerry as it is for Android or the iPhone.”
The iPhone has other security shortcomings, experts say, beyond BlackBerry’s superior capacity for encryption. It stores a snapshot of the screen, for instance, if users hold down the “home” key too long. Android phones are considered riskier still. Google, their manufacturer, exercises less control over the Android Market than Apple does over its App Store. As a result, a wider swath of developers can get their software onto Android devices, making them more vulnerable to bugs.
So, yes, let’s commend Congress for moving beyond the BlackBerry and indulging in the technologies popular beyond the Hill. But no device is safer than an old-fashioned BlackBerry. In this age of hacktivism, government workers remain targets of electronic snooping. By catering to convenience over safety, Congress has perhaps opened itself to the ever-growing danger of cyberintrusion.
This article appears in the October 15, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.