Perhaps we should worry when Barack Obama starts channeling Charlton Heston, but in this case it seems pretty justified. By now I’m sure everyone knows that Obama is required to surrender his Blackberry when he takes office. Apparently he was recently quoted as saying that will require some application of Archimedian principles, but stopped short of mentioning cold and dead.
I hear all the concerns about “security” and the need to record every message, but I have to wonder if they really make sense in the world today. Let me try to break this down into two parts that represent two related, but somewhat distinct functions of a Blackberry like device. The first part is information organization and access. That is, surfing the web, or making a note to remember to pick up Sasha something from Prague. The second is communications. That is, phone calls, emails, and SMS texts.
Let’s look at information organization and access. First, I’m going to assert that Obama’s smarter than to keep or access sensitive information. He’s not going to keep the launch codes on his phone. If he wants to use his phone to check sports scores, watch the new X-Men trailer, or track the Dow on Tuesday, what are we worried about? I suppose there’s the question of whether or not someone could track what he’s looking at, but there are technical solutions to that problem that doubtless are already in place for use by many other government officials. And I’ve heard no one claim that there’s any need to maintain everything the President sees or scribbles as part of the public record. Clearly no one tries to record every time the President reads a newspaper or passes an electronic billboard in the limo. This is not different, it has just consolidated the information to his phone.
On the communications front, again there is a security issue related to sensitive communications, or I suppose even personal ones. But these issues aren’t unique to Obama. Again, the government already has these solutions in place for other officials. But the issue trotted out most often here is the one of needing to maintain a public record of all communications.
I’m not suggesting that there’s no public interest in maintaining that record, but I do think we need to rethink what constitutes communications in the world today. Recall that there was a point when a casual letter or a casual phone call were not readily made. These were deliberate purposeful communications with an intended purpose. And I’m not talking just about Churchill writing to Roosevelt. But up until recently, the resources required to communicate at a distance demanded that even communicating to your sister required a bit of forethought and planning. It was in this era of communication that the rules for public records hail from. At that time, there was no notion of trying to capture casual conversation. If Dick and Pat had a spat over the shade of her lipstick, it was lost to unrecorded history. As it should have been.
My assertion is that much of the electronic communication today is little more than casual conversation at a distance. If you don’t believe me, check the chat logs on your phone. This is not communication we need to preserve for posterity. I know, I know, you’re saying that it could be. Who’s to decide? Can we reasonably let a person decide when to put their communications on the record and when not to? The reality is, we already do. Does anyone who’s sat through the Bush administration seriously think that all the communications that should have been on the record were put on the record? Clearly there are ways around the system. And the solution can’t reasonably be tighter surveillance. It is woefully unfair to expect the President to submit to 24×7 recordings of his every breath and archiving of every Scrabble score sheet. And if you were to opt for such Draconian measures, why stop at the President?
We need checks and balances. We need accountability. But we also need a President who isn’t sealed in a bubble. Bush was in a bubble and wreaked havoc on the nation. Seriously, do we think Obama’s connectedness poses a similar magnitude risk? Every CEO has a Blackberry (or equivalent). The Secretary of State, the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court all have them. What makes Obama’s risk so unique? I contend that sooner or later we need to deal with this issue anyway. Maybe it’s time to start.