Obama Team Finds Secure Networks Aren't Fun

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2009-01-22 Print this article Print

White House workers complain of lack of access to outside services and old, boring software.

A Washington Post story this morning caught my attention: "Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages." It's not a good sign, but not for the reasons the story implies.

Some, perhaps most of the article, details problems that probably happen in every White House transition. Suddenly there are large numbers of new employees and it just takes time to get them their stuff, like phone numbers and network accounts. This part is dog bites man. Incoming Bush staff in 2001 even claimed petty sabotage, that outgoing Clinton staff had pulled the "W" keys from the keyboards.

I have to think that these problems are inevitable in White House transitions: You can't just bulk-import a list of names into the directory at a place like this. The right way to do it would be to have the staff start prior to Jan. 20 so that they are checked out and set up, but that seems to be a political impossibility because, in this case, it would have Obama staffers working in the Bush White House.

The real eye-opening part of the Post article is where they make complaints like this: "No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking."

Oh dear! You mean they can't just run any old Internet application on their White House computers? They can't use whatever e-mail system they want? Welcome to the secure enterprise, kids.

The White House new-media team was especially hobbled. "The team members, accustomed to working on Macintoshes, found computers outfitted with six-year-old versions of Microsoft software. Laptops were scarce, assigned to only a few people in the West Wing. The team was left struggling to put closed captions on online videos." There are no specifics about the software, and I'm wondering if the "six-year-old versions of Microsoft software" reference is to Office 2003. But if it refers to actual video editing software then I'm not sure what it is. Other than Movie Maker, does Microsoft even make titling software?

One gets the sense that the Obama team has no sense of what security restrictions they will run into because of the considerations necessary at the White House and why they are there. You can't follow the security business over the last few years and not come away knowing that workstations have to be locked down, that access to public services needs to be restricted to those which have been specifically vetted and, perhaps, with which specific security arrangements have been made.

But the part that really bothers me is the whining about outside e-mail accounts. If I started a job like this and found out I might not have an e-mail address for a few days I would be pretty angry and reach out for some solution. But didn't we just go through a series of e-mail scandals in the Bush White House part of which was related to the use of outside e-mail systems? Officials were called to testify before Congress and threatened with criminal penalties over that. And Alaska Governor Sarah Palin came under much criticism for using a Yahoo e-mail account for official business. An ABC News story said at the time: 'By using non-governmental e-mail systems, "Your information is out there available, beyond the official mechanisms there to protect it," said Amit Yoran, the nation's first cybersecurity chief.'

The Post article makes a condescending reference to these restrictions being in place "...partly by tradition but also for security reasons and to ensure that all official work is preserved under the Presidential Records Act." Shortly thereafter it says that officials in the Press Office set up Gmail accounts with the permission of the White House counsel. Oh well, no biggie, I guess.

In some time, maybe as much as a month, the staff will be all set up and know what they have to do in order to get their work done. But if they're as impatient as this article indicates, I'm concerned. Getting your work done is an obviously admirable goal, but it can't be used to override security procedures. If that means no Facebook group for "White House Staff" then too bad.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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