Obama Keeps His Blackberry

Third, messages from the president will be designed so they cannot be forwarded.

Does anyone know how they implemented this feature? Restricting email distribution is a hard problem. Will Obama only be emailing with a small set of locked-down White House blackberries? Did the reporter get the facts wrong? Is someone blowing smoke? Enquiring minds want to know.

I’ve been following this with interest. Generally speaking I presume that reporters don’t know even the most basic things about email (and the web generally) so I’d be interested in a technical discussion about this. Or maybe it’s like torture and they’ll have the keep the mechanism secret for it to be effective….

When I worked at Groove, we used Lotus Notes extensively (because the Groove people were all Notes people in a former life). Occasionally we’d get a confidential email from the CEO that could neither be forwarded nor copied to the clipboard.

Of course, if you really wanted to pass it along to someone else, you could just take a screenshot.

All of these technical blocks seem to me tantamount to DRM, with the same failings. Ultimately that sound file is going to make its way out of a speaker, so at the very least I can just put a microphone in front of the speaker and capture the DRM-free signal that way. It may be a low-fidelity capture, but it’s a capture.

Likewise, that email will be a sequence of bits on someone’s computer. We may only capture those bits in a suboptimal screenshot, but capture them we will.

If Obama’s BlackBerry can’t take screenshots, he could always pull out a camera and photograph the BB’s screen.

The more modern version of the Lotus Notes features is Microsoft’s Information Rights Management feature set in Office 2003/2007, which I would expect are on governmental machines.

While not susceptible to standard screenshot-style attacks, there are still machine- and non-machine-methods for making this data visible and thus forwardable, like a camera taking a picture of the screen. IRM was always more about stopping accidental or minimal malice rather than serious malice.

And, of course, if Obama can email friends, one can assume they aren’t all on governmental machines, and Gmail (which another NYT article mentioned is now in common by WH staffers) isn’t exactly a no-forward world.

In conclusion, the reporter got technically-incorrect information and passed it along. Shocking, I know.