Inside the Gadgets Protecting Obama

Friday, February 06, 2009

Matt Egan

Whether it’s a souped-up BlackBerry, the most fearsome Cadillac on the planet or a suit that stops speeding bullets, the businesses behind protecting the world’s most powerful person have received widespread attention from an international audience in recent weeks.

Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion (RIMM: 59, -0.17, -0.29%) landed an endorsement beyond its wildest dreams when President Barack Obama refused to enter the White House without his BlackBerry device.

Detroit’s recently-bailed out General Motors (GM: 2.83, -0.01, -0.35%) scored some badly needed positive PR when the president’s new tank-like Cadillac was unveiled last month.

And a Colombian fashion designer whose bullet-resistant line of clothing has been dubbed the “Armani of Armor,” drew international attention after Obama reportedly wore a bullet-resistant suit at last month’s Inauguration.

“I can assure you there is no more difficult challenge in the world than to protect the president of the United States. It was the biggest challenge I was ever involved in,” said Joseph LaSorsa, who drove former President Ronald Reagan as part of a 20-year career at the Secret Service and owns security consulting firm J.A. LaSorsa & Associates.

RIM has easily scored the biggest marketing coup, given the intense publicity Obama’s fight to hold onto his BlackBerry received since the election.

“In just the first few weeks, I’ve had to engage in some of the toughest diplomacy of my life. And that was just to keep my Blackberry,” Obama joked last week, according to AFP.

“You can’t buy that kind of coverage in an advertising campaign,” said Kevin Restivo, senior software analyst at IDC. “A company typically has to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. In this case, RIM has done nothing other than produce something that it’s already been producing.”

Obama’s insistence on keeping his BlackBerry underscores not just his own tech savvy, but also the ubiquitous nature of the device.

“I like the fact that we have a president who uses information technology to his benefit. It means we actually have the first information-age president,” said Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and author.

But the move doesn’t come without risks as Obama’s communications are potentially subject to illegal access from hackers and spies as well as unwanted legal access from subpoenas. To combat the illegal threat, Obama’s messages have been restricted to a tight circle of friends and will likely be re-routed to avoid RIM’s headquarters in Canada.

“Nothing is hacker-proof,” said Kevin Mitnick, a security consultant and formerly one of the world’s most famous hackers. “The National Security Agency probably put in a crypto add-on so that even if the communications were intercepted, they would be unintelligible.”

Of course there are perks included in Obama’s BlackBerry usage that most Americans live without.

“There are a lot of benefits. For example, he will never lose it. You and I have to worry about the NSA eavesdropping. The president can call the NSA and say, ‘Don’t do that,’” said Schneier.

Auto aficionados have also drooled over “The Beast,” the president’s new fortress-like Cadillac limousine. GM, which was rescued from collapse by the Bush Administration last year and reported a 51% sales drop in January, had the honor of designing and manufacturing the Obamamobile.

“Although many of the vehicle’s security enhancements cannot be discussed, it is safe to say that this car’s security and coded communications systems make it the most technologically advanced protection vehicle in the world,” Nicholas Trotta, an assistant director at the Secret Service, said in a statement.

The new presidential limo likely rides on a medium-truck GM chassis, is encased in several inches of military-grade armor, has a floor blanket made of Kevlar, ballistic-resistant windows and tires and a sealed air-circulation system to defend against gas attacks, according to an LA Times analysis.

“There’s no way to know for sure” exactly what kind of attacks it can withstand, “unless you start firing mortars at it and hopefully that never happens,” said Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com, who spotted a prototype of the vehicle in Colorado in July.

There was no guarantee that GM would land this high-profile deal as Mercedes and BMW already specialize in armored vehicles, said Brauer.

“It’s nice to see a very clearly American brand serving a very clearly American role like this. Obviously General Motors wanted the visibility they would get from this,” said Brauer.

Meanwhile, speculation has swirled that Obama was wearing a bullet-resistant coat or suit when he took the oath of office last month. Officials haven’t confirmed the reports but experts said they wouldn’t be surprised if it were the case.

True or not, the speculation has been a boon for Colombian designer Miguel Caballero, whose garments offer three levels of ballistic protection and are seven times more flexible than Kevlar vests. Caballero’s clothing can protect against anything from a 9mm pistol to fire from a Mini Uzi or an MP5 submachine gun.

In an interview with FOX Business last month, Caballero said the bullet-resistant fabrics costs $2,000 to $6,000 and are designed to “absorb the energy of the bullet.” He also said his line of clothing is catching on as they have dealers in 28 countries and have been worn by Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia, and Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador.

“Protective garments are used all of the time,” said LaSorsa. “Everything in the world of protection has changed since 9/11. The protection of the president has probably been the most dramatic change.”