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Originally published Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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BlackBerry flattered, but it'd be easier if Obama let gadget go

Barack Obama's unpaid endorsement of the BlackBerry has provided maker Research In Motion with a marketing boost its competitors can only dream of. Now, if the company is lucky, the president-elect will stop using it.

Bloomberg News

Barack Obama's unpaid endorsement of the BlackBerry has provided maker Research In Motion with a marketing boost its competitors can only dream of. Now, if the company is lucky, the president-elect will stop using it.

Obama has lobbied to keep the device over the concerns of the Secret Service. While a presidential BlackBerry would enhance the maker's image, its encryption would be a target for spies, putting its "sterling" reputation for confidentiality at risk, analyst Roger Entner said.

"The moment it becomes known that Barack Obama uses his BlackBerry, you know that a significant share of Russia's signal intelligence and China's signal intelligence and cyberintelligence budgets will be targeted to break it," said Entner, an analyst with market researcher Nielsen in Boston.

Obama isn't alone in craving a gadget to link him to the outside world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lost her access to such devices when she took the job, and probably will get an iPhone after she steps down Tuesday, said Sean McCormack, her spokesman.

"I'm still clinging to my BlackBerry. They're going to pry it out of my hands," Obama said in a broadcast last week televised by CNBC. "You are interacting with people who are outside of the White House in a meaningful way."

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said Tuesday he wasn't sure whether Obama would be allowed to keep his BlackBerry after the inauguration. Nevertheless, he'll find a way to keep e-mailing, he said.

"He does live his life through technology," Plouffe said after a speech in Toronto.

Marisa Conway, a spokeswoman for Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion, didn't respond to requests for comment.

Obama's fight to keep the device raises its profile as Research In Motion seeks to expand beyond its base of professionals such as lawyers and bankers. Consumers have gravitated to handsets such as Apple's iPhone as they seek devices that can surf the Web and download video. It's a market that probably will grow 8.9 percent this year, according to research firm IDC.

Obama would probably collect fees of more than $100 million a year if he were able to make product endorsements right now, said Laura Ries, president of marketing-strategy firm Ries & Ries. That would top the marketing take of Tiger Woods, she said. The pro golfer was ranked North America's most marketable athlete in a SportsBusiness Daily poll last year.

"It's worth it to go to reasonable lengths to allow him to keep it," said Ries, co-author of four books on brands and marketing. "How often does a president get photographed? Every five minutes. The potential of him being in a photo using a BlackBerry in all likelihood is incredibly high. That would be very powerful."

If Obama prevails, he could probably legally keep his e-mails private for as long as 12 years after he leaves office by citing the Presidential Records Act, said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

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"The only real implication is whether or not the BlackBerry could be hacked," Blanton said. Archivists would find the e-mail useful because it could be saved on servers and harvested later by historians and journalists, he said.

Security-software maker McAfee has detected few attacks on Research In Motion's security system, said Jan Volzke, head of marketing for McAfee's mobile security unit. The BlackBerry network is unique and fully under the company's control, which helps to ward off incursions.

U.S. engineers might be able to build a BlackBerry that uses a higher level of encryption than Research In Motion and its wireless carriers do, Entner said. Without a special version, Obama can't have confidence his messages are private, he said.

"If Obama uses a vanilla BlackBerry, he should use it with the assumption that the world will read it," said Entner, the analyst. "His counterparts in the capitals of several countries will read it."

Information from Bloomberg News reporters Chris Stern and Viola Gienger is included in this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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