Addressing the State of the White House Technology

Maintaining Balance Between Transparency and Security

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Since President Obama was sworn in and Whitehouse.gov has switched to a new interface, there has been an endless amount of chatter about the state of the White House’s technology. Some discuss the shortcomings, while others defend it as just fine.

Tradition and Transition

A controversial Washington Post article discusses the state of the technology situation in the White House as the Bush Administration moved out and the Obama Administration moved in. The article takes the angle of the Obama crew being forced to step back into the "dark ages" and use "old software" and Microsoft instead of Mac, disconnected phone lines, etc. Obama’s team were using Gmail addresses because their new white house addresses had yet to be set up. An Obama spokesman said it was like "going from an Xbox to an Atari."

David Almacy Perhaps that’s just how it is. "The White House itself is an institution that transitions regardless of who the president is," says David Almacy, Internet Director under the Bush Administration. "The White House is not starting from scratch. Processes are already in place."

"Bureaucracy is nonpartisan," he says. "Moving 3,000 people out and 3,000 people in is a Herculean task." That is worth considering when it comes to the phone lines, email addresses, etc. Although one might think they would have had plenty of time to get this worked out by the time the new President was ready to take office.

As far as the technology itself, a lot of people around the Internet are taking the stance of "welcome to the real world". According to a Fox News article, "the White House has everything a modern corporate office would — Windows XP, BlackBerrys, Outlook e-mail, plenty of laptops and lots of flatscreen monitors and TVs." Owen Thomas at Valleywag had an interesting take:

Guess what? Outside the Manhattan media bubble and Silicon Valley’s startup cube farms, this is how most Americans work. Want a Macintosh? Sorry, IT hasn’t approved it. Oh, you need to use Facebook to interact with customers? Sorry, that site’s blocked — and management suspects that "social media" is a buzzword which means "getting paid to waste time chatting with friends." Want to use some new blogging service? Fill out this three-page questionnaire about the site’s security practices, please.

This is not a story about digital pioneers getting cast back into the Stone Age; it’s about a privileged elite learning how the rest of the country has to work. Those "six-year-old versions of Microsoft software"? That must mean Windows XP. If you haven’t noticed, most people still prefer XP over Microsoft’s clunky, buggy, annoying new Vista. Here’s a suggestion for the Obamans: Stop whining about the tools taxpayers have paid for, and get to work learning how to cope with what your employer gives you, just like the rest of us.

But still, you have to think the people behind a Presidential campaign that was practically built on using technology and highlighting tech policies might have some kind of grasp on the reality of the situation. The real issue is where technology and security clash with each other, and speaking of Herculean tasks, how about staying transparent and completely secure at the same time?

Obama's Tech Policy


The national security agency added special security software to Obama’s blackberry so that he could continue to use it. "This means Obama can continue emailing routine and personal messages that will become part of the public record," says Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm. "However, some of the more ‘fun’ functions of a smartphone, such as IM and those requiring GPS functionality, won’t be available for his use. So far no data channels appear to be secure enough for Top Secret emails."

You’ve probably read about how the Obama administration cannot use Facebook, instant messenger clients, and outside email accounts. How will this kind of stuff affect the transparency that the Obama administration is trying to maintain?

Transparency and New Media

If you were expecting to be updated from the new staff via Twitter, you might want to read this story. A fake White House Twitter account has been posting presidential updates, but beware that it is not coming from the real source.

Everybody knows by now that YouTube videos are one way Obama intends to remain transparent. He and his staff frequently communicate with the people through them. Some questions have been raised about why YouTube is getting preferential treatment, however.

White House YouTube Channel

The Privacy Policy at WhiteHouse.gov depicts very strict rules about using persistent cookies on government sites, YouTube is apparently exempt from this because they want to be able to embed YouTube videos on the site. Some are wondering why they don’t just use their own video service. "The U.S. should be able to stream videos through its own service at this point without making YouTube its default online video service," says Frederic Lardinois at Read Write Web.

It’s only been a few days since the inauguration though. There are certainly kinks to be worked out. Interestingly, the new administration has unblocked Google from crawling info on the White House site. Previously there were a lot of pages being blocked that were available to the public anyway.

Open Source and Changing Tradition

The new administration may not have been thrilled about the state of the White House’s technology, and there may be certain aspects of it that just can’t be sacrificed, but that doesn’t mean that change isn’t an option. Already Obama has shown an interest in open source. Sun Chairman Scott Mcnealy says that the President has asked him to author a white paper on potential benefits to the government of open source solutions.

Scott McNealy

"The government ought to mandate open-source products based on open-source reference implementations to improve security, get higher-quality software, lower costs, higher reliability–all the benefits that come with open software," says McNealy as quoted by BBC News.

He also says that the CIO should have "veto power, the right to eliminate any hardware, software or networking product that touches the federal network…He or she would have real power, real oversight and employ real consequences for folk that don’t realign with the architecture. It’s what every business does that the government doesn’t."

From the sounds of it, change is definitely in the air, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed a single iota of what the President’s campaign has been about. However, that doesn’t mean that change doesn’t come with restrictions, and compromises are going to have to be made. Transparency and new media efforts will not be able to work without the security needed to protect the country.

Addressing the State of the White House Technology
Top Rated White Papers and Resources
  • http://www.vitallywell.net vitallywell

    Reality bytes. As an IT professional for 28 years I can backup statements of this article about the security concerns and corporate real world platforms. Sure, bleeding edge technology may be fancy and flashy, but security is unproven. Fiscally responsible IT budgets don’t throw money at the “latest and greatest” unproven software and technologies.

    Before you buy into the hype that the Bush administration was in the stone age, look at what is being used in “the real world”. Sounds like someone wants us to buy them new toys. I am certain there is room for some updating but one has to be realistic and a total revamp would be a security and support nightmare.

    • SvP

      This is not a corporate environment. It’s the white house. Change is on their priority list and a president should have the tools to do his work.

      Things can’t change instantly, and use of public and commercial channels should be taken with precaution.

      It is the IT’s departments responsibility to ensure proper use of tools the president and it’s staff requires. It’s not the IT staff job to say: we can’t. In this situation IT staff is actually saying they are not willing to change infrastructural or technical support, with as main reasoning: everybody uses this, and: we are used to work like this. Those are reasons that can be dismissed with: work, and, learn.

      Change is required (by your boss) and you have to work a bit harder (for your boss) it’s that simple!

    • Guest

      LOL! “You can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their back”

  • Not A Fan

    Obama is like a Script Kiddie… A person that knows about a few programs but doesnt really understand how it all works.

    I really hope he doesnt start making decisions like, the white house needs macs! not windows!

    that is horrible. I thought our economy was in the hell hole? Shouldnt we not be thinking of spending money!

  • http://www.weslinda.com WesLinda

    Seriously folks. Apple isn’t the only tech out there. And open source for the white house are we serious? Quit crying and get back to work. Or just get to work. Focus on the tools you have and realize you are doing the nations business. Poor babies.

  • http://groups.msn.com/DemocracyInteractive Jess

    obviously you seperate the open sections from the real security needs.
    open source is by nature insecure as anyone can add new applications and features.
    public acces net for schools, politicians and information like library of Congress, legislation and govt departments for public information. and LAN net local for internal department with autocopy barriered archives to prevent rewriting histories.

    For the President and staff, State, Fed Reserve
    Fibreoptic line networks for the internal net with automatic records cashing to prevent deletions like auto burnt DVD servers..

    FBI,CIA,NAsa etc. auto copy to tech head for white house briefings
    research and backup for raw date mining for other recomendations.
    total of four networks all archived for scrutiny by access card no delete ability for anyone.

  • Guest

    The IT section are not part of the new team surely? Are they not just government workers – the same this week as last month. It’s just the way they are being instructed has changed…

    • Guest

      And in an idiotic and wasteful way (how they are being instructed). Obviously Obama and/or his IT guys are still in an alternate reality. They come in touting “change change change” and talking about how they are going to stimulate our economy, but they want to spend what is most likely MILLIONS of dollars overhauling stuff **THAT WORKS** during an “economic crisis?” These guys are out of touch with reality, and I’ve said that from day one on Obama’s campaign trail.

  • Bugs

    To the Mac and PC commercials from Apple, same smugness, same attitude, same resistant ideas to REAL due dilligence to security of the mac OS 5 and server. The real security hell hole IS MICROSOFT!! P E R I O D !! Keep the suit and tie and all the IT people its about 3 MS to 1 Apple. Those are YOUR dollars at “work”. Assuming you are a taxpayer as a goverment employee IS NOT A TAX PAYER AT ALL (not generated income).Look at how much time and $$ are spent on viruses! I am on number 32 of PC’s for me to fix for innocent internet surfing folks around here with the AntiVirus 2009 ripoff from Russia . (not Mac which I type on now, and running for 2 (two) years since scrub and restoring from scratch, two PC’ have to be done every 6-8 months)
    Just lookup at www.fsecure.com
    Downadup worm continues to spread

    Several organizations and corporate networks are currently affected by an unusually nasty worm, referred to as Downadup.

    These (Botnets) are almost ALL stiff necked Microsoft PC’s and they are attacking more PC’s

    Must go, fire call BYE

    • Guest

      Are you kidding me? The computers don’t get the viruses, it’s the computer ILliterate morons that download something because a flash advertisement says “punch the monkey and win $1,000″ and so they do it and get a trojan. There is no reason to go out and buy all new Macs, I agree with the other guy, sounds like these guys just want new toys. If they are running Win XP and Office XP, there is no need to upgrade right now, they can wait until the economy is better.

    • Guest

      Are they all going to want iPhone 3G’s then? Can’t think of any better way to spend MY tax dollars than buying a $200+ mobile phone that will cost $60+ a month each to run and then dropping $1,200 a desktop for the iMacs when I could get a nice Windows machine for half that.

      To Owen Thomas at Valleywag, to sit here today and still call Vista clunky and buggy is ignorant, you should be ashamed to call yourself any kind of a proficient IT person. When was the last time you pulled up Vista on a good machine? Did you upgrade from Win XP on your old 1.2GHz machine and the minimum 1GB RAM? If you are any kind of proficient IT person, you would know that’s stupid, you can’t run today’s applications on a machine that’s 5 years old. Yes, maybe Vista is a resource hog, but when you have the hardware out there to run it and are too cheap to buy a new computer that has decent specs (not one of those cheap arse $299 or $399 ones), then stick with XP, don’t be an idiot and keep calling Vista clunky and buggy, it’s a big fat lie manufactured by Crapple, I mean Apple.

    • johnnymags

      Just because Joe the Web Surfer is still using a 5 year old computer with Internet Exploder and has to patch his security holes every five seconds doesn’t mean the leader of the free world has to. America is about innovation and exploration- so the Captain of the ship should have the best tools available. Microsoft built their business model on slavish dependency and charging developers for the privelege of using their OS. Apple built theirs on open source and collaborative workflow. With Intel Macs now you can use both. Win-win, I say.

    • http://www.roomfurniturechina.com wholesale bedroom furniture

      That crazy increase in traffic must have helped their organic listings, One thing i have wondered about is the fact that twitter converts URL’s into Tiny URL’s? Why does it do this and not just make the links ‘no follow’

  • http://tucsonlabs.com Josh

    I hope Obama embraces open-source software in the government. I think that a major switch to open source technologies could really help are economy. It might not be good for Redmond, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction.

  • http://www.pr-interactive.com FL Web Design

    wow more politics and more web based opinions.

  • http://www.kampanye-damai-pemilu-indonesia2009.info/ Kampanye Damai Pemilu Indonesia 2009

    Yes, it’s great if we combine politics and with web based technology.

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