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
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
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.
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
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
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