President Obama is the first true gadget geek to occupy the Oval Office, and yet his eagerness to take part in the personal-technology revolution is hampered by the secrecy and security challenges that are daily requirements of his job.
WASHINGTON — In this always-on, always-connected world, what good is a Fitbit with no GPS or an iPad that can’t connect to the cloud?
Hint: Ask President Obama.
Obama is the first true gadget geek to occupy the Oval Office, and yet his eagerness to take part in the personal technology revolution is hampered by the secrecy and security challenges that are daily requirements of his job.
What counts as must-have features for many people — high-definition cameras, powerful microphones, cloud-connected wireless radios and precise GPS location transmitters — are potential threats when the leader of the free world wants to carry them around.
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And so using the latest devices means more than merely ordering one on Amazon for delivery to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It means accepting the compromises imposed by White House technology experts, whose mission is to secure the president’s communications, and by the Secret Service agents who protect him.
“I am not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone,” Obama conceded at a youth summit in 2013.
He has not given up, though. Obama is the first commander in chief to regularly carry a specially secured BlackBerry. He reads briefings and checks scores from ESPN on an iPad (the first of which was given to him by Steve Jobs before its public release). And recently he has been seen wearing the Fitbit Surge, a fitness band packed with all the latest technology, on his left wrist.
Obama was last seen with the fitness tracker during an appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s Web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Obama’s Fitbit makes a brief but clear appearance as he steers a 1963 Corvette Stingray with his left hand.
That raises the question: How many of the device’s features have been purposely disabled?
Fitbit’s website, which calls the Surge model “the ultimate fitness super watch,” trumpets “GPS tracking” and “wireless syncing” as two key features — both of which could be problematic for security officials who are not keen on broadcasting the president’s location and condition at any moment. The website notes the presence of Bluetooth communications and eight sensors, including a heart-rate monitor.
White House officials repeatedly declined to comment on any of the security issues regarding the president’s personal technology. Officials at Fitbit did not respond to emails requesting information about his use of their device.
Still, from the experiences of others inside the White House, it is easy to conclude that Obama is not having a typical out-of-the-box experience with his electronic toys.
James Cartwright, a retired Marine general who served as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during part of Obama’s first term, was one of the administration’s earliest tech adopters. Eager for a better way to have information at his fingertips in top-secret meetings, Cartwright was dazzled by the possibilities when the first iPad was unveiled early in 2010.
“If nothing else, in the physical sense, not having to have large binders and four lieutenants to carry them for me,” Cartwright said of his decision to carry his briefing documents on an iPad. “As soon as people saw it, the race was on: ‘How do I get one?’”
But it wasn’t that easy, he recalled. The general’s iPad was essentially a prototype modified at his direction by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military’s high-tech lab that helped develop weather satellites, the Internet, GPS, and stealth technology.
The agency made physical alterations to the iPad, removing the cameras, wireless chips, location sensors and microphones. Briefing documents were loaded onto the device every morning via a secure cable. Anything Cartwright wanted to save came off the device the same way in a process he called “store and dump.”
“What I ended up with was a pretty dumb iPad,” he said. “It wasn’t connected to anything. Anything was removed that could transmit.”
Without such alterations, the general would not have been allowed to take the iPad into the White House Situation Room or other secured rooms known as SCIFs (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities). Baskets sit outside such rooms so that White House staff members or other attendees can drop their iPhones before walking in.
Cartwright declined to say if the president’s iPad had been altered, though others who are familiar with Obama’s technology said it would not be a stretch to assume that similar precautions have been taken for the commander in chief.
The president has acknowledged that his BlackBerry is enhanced with security features that ease fears of his emails being hacked or intercepted. Even so, his communications are severely limited — only a small number of designated people are even allowed to send him email.
When Obama posted his first message from the @POTUS Twitter account in May, he borrowed an iPhone from a staff member instead of using his secure BlackBerry.
Such precautions are seen as vital in an era when cyberattacks from the nation’s adversaries are common. Chinese hackers are suspected of having breached millions of records at the Office of Personnel Management, and officials believe Russian hackers penetrated an unclassified White House email system — though apparently not Obama’s BlackBerry.
Obama is not the first person inside the White House to take precautions against high-tech dangers. In 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney disabled the wireless abilities of his defibrillator, which had been implanted to regulate his heartbeat. His fear: Terrorists could have hacked the signal in an assassination attempt, not unlike the dramatic plot twist that killed the vice president in Showtime’s “Homeland” a few years ago.
But Obama is the first committed early adopter of personal technology to serve as president. In 2014, he told his helicopter pilot to wait while he ran back into the Oval Office. “I forgot my BlackBerry,” the president told reporters, holding the phone up.
When Obama filmed a short video preview before his State of the Union address this year, his BlackBerry could be seen on the desk behind him, and his new Fitbit was clearly visible.
Those close to him say he envisions an ultra-high-tech presidential library when he leaves the White House. And in long dinners with Silicon Valley titans, he has talked extensively about ways to better use personal technology to increase voter turnout and improve civic engagement.
Mostly, though, Obama is just intent on being plugged in the way most Americans are these days. In a town hall exchange in 2011 with Jorge Ramos of Univision, Obama seemed amused that Ramos did not think he had his own computer.
“I mean, Jorge, I’m the president of the United States,” he said. “You think I’ve got to go borrow somebody’s computer?”