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A Disconnected President

Written by on November 17, 2008

Over the last few days a story has floated around the internet, that Obama will have to be disconnected from the internet when he moves into the White House. I find that idea to be revolting.

Here are a couple of quotes:

A decision has not been made on whether he [Obama] could become the first e-mailing President, but aides said that seemed doubtful.
For all the perquisites and power afforded the President, the chief executive of the United States is essentially deprived by law and by culture of some of the very tools that other chief executives depend on to survive and to thrive.
Aides said he [Obama] hopes to have a laptop computer on his desk in the Oval Office, making him the first American President to do so.

When the world goes wrong

In the year 2000, when the internet was far less important than what it is today. President George Bush wrote an email to his close friends:

"Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you."

The reason was because of two things. One was caused by security concerns. That somebody might be able to hack into his account, and intercept a message. The second, and the one implied in Bush's message is the Presidential Records Act. In short it states all communications that the President makes, should be recorded and made available to the public. There a few exceptions to this rule and the President can delay certain release of information for up to 12 years. And all information is by default not released until 5 years after the end of administration (after Obama is no longer President).

So what does this have to do with Obama being forced to be offline for the next 4 years (or 8 years)? Well, nothing really - except bureaucratic traditions and security nonsense.

Let's look at bureaucratic drivel first. The only reason why you would choose not to use email in the White House, is if you don't want other people to know your secrets. Not now, but 5 years after your Presidential term.

First of all, I cannot see how that would even stop a President from using a computer. All he needs to do is to not use it for sending "secret messages", which a sensible person wouldn't do anyway. I cannot see why it would prevent the President to keep in touch with the world on all other topics.

This leads us to the security implications. The President of the United States is undoubtedly at a much higher risk than other people. Not only is his computer a likely target by hackers, but also by the intelligence agencies of other countries. There is no doubt that many countries would be very interesting in reading his emails.

But think about this... How can it be that the CIA can use email, but not the President? Why can the US Army use email, but not the President?

Surely the Secret Service knows a lot about making secure environments. All email from the President and all network communications, going to and from the White House, are monitored extremely closely.

But most importantly; why would the President use insecure unencrypted email to send highly classified and sensitive information? The answer is obvious... he wouldn't.

So the security issue is unfounded. It doesn't prevent the President to keep in touch, to browse the internet, to read blogs, or to update his Facebook profile.

This is yet another stupid response from the security communities. To blow things out of proportions, to link unrelated security risks, and to come up with inane solutions, which always happens to be "not to use a computer".

This is most easily proven by this statement:

"The nature of the President's job is that others can use e-mail for him."

Why is it more secure to have a secretary to send out the email, than the President himself? An email is an email, it doesn't matter who sends it. Such a statement only testifies to the mindless thinking. This is not about security. This is about keeping with traditions even though they are out of touch with reality.

Here is an idea. Give the President two laptops (and two blackberrys). Give him one computer for security communications within the government (and government institutions). Give him another for "browsing the net" and keeping tabs on unclassified and insecure topics (like using Facebook). And don't create a network link between them.

Wouldn't that be a better solution?

Being able to get the job done

But the real issue is being able to get the job done. Imagine that you had to live without the internet and a computer for the next 4 years. Imagine that the only source of information you got is filtered and brought to you manually by other people.

Without being connected to the internet, would you be able to get the job done? Would you be able to make the right decisions? Would you be able to see the big picture in an unbiased way?

Secondly, while not using the internet might have been acceptable in the year 2000, before the big social changes. Not being connected the internet today means not being connected to the people. The internet is not just a small part of a few people's lives. It is a huge part of everyone's lives.

How can the future President of the United States not be connected to such an important part of the world?

(Quotes and images via New York Times)

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.


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