Addressing the State of the White House Technology

    January 26, 2009
    Chris Crum

Since President Obama was sworn in and 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 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.