Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Obama Administration Frustrated by White House Technology

January 23, 2009 05:28 PM
by Denis Cummings
Obama staffers may have to adjust to using less modern computers and software in the White House, which has older technology and strict regulations on Internet use.

“From an Xbox to an Atari”

Following a hectic moving-in day, Obama officials and staffers complained of antiquated technology, disconnected phone lines and communication failures at the White House. “Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts,” reports the Washington Post.

Under the current regulations, White House workers cannot use outside e-mail accounts, instant messaging and social networking. Many of the restrictions are in place for security reasons and to help ensure that all official work is recorded as required by the Presidential Records Act.

Obama’s staffers, who used Mac laptops during the presidential campaign, were disappointed to find the White House full of desktop PCs equipped with “six-year-old versions of Microsoft software.” Obama spokesman Bill Burton grumbled to the Post, “It is kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari.”

Bush administration staffers denied some of the claims made by Obama’s staffers, saying that the White House has “has everything a modern corporate office would—Windows XP, BlackBerrys, Outlook e-mail, plenty of laptops and lots of flatscreen monitors and TVs,” according to Fox News.

David Almacy, Bush’s Internet director from 2005 to 2007, said the wiring and communication problems were due in large part to the chaos of moving-in. “Bureaucracy is nonpartisan,” he told Fox. “Moving 3,000 people out and 3,000 people in is a Herculean task.”

The Obama administration has not commented on how or if it will try to improve the situation. Obama himself recently gained approval to continue using his Blackberry after security officials created special regulations and enhanced security software.

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Background: White House technology

The first two presidents in the Internet age, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, each used the Internet sparingly, both as a safety precaution and to control the information logged under the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Clinton sent just two e-mails using his White House account, while Bush did not even set up an official e-mail address.

In 2003, Bush established a policy “prohibiting, among other things, the use of nonofficial e-mail programs and instant messaging systems on official White House computers,” according to Slate. Many other sites, including social networking sites, YouTube and iTunes, were banned by the White House IT department.

Despite the numerous security regulations, there have been several known examples of information being lost or stolen. David Gewirtz chronicled these security lapses in his 2007 book “Where Have All The E-mails Gone?” in which he argued that the e-mail system has national security consequences. He wrote that the e-mail archiving system is substandard and that White House workers use party-affiliated e-mail accounts—which are less secure than White House e-email accounts—as a way to avoid the PRA.

Opinion & Analysis: Updating White House technology

The complaints of the Obama team have been supported by many bloggers, who hope that Obama can modernize the government through the use of the latest technology. “Maybe the government can inject some funds into the tech sector with a full systems upgrade for the federal government,” writes Sam Diaz of ZDNet. “If the White House is in this bad of shape, I can only imagine what’s on the desks in offices at the Senate, House, EPA, FDA, FBI and other government agencies offices in DC.”

That might not be so easy argues eWeek’s Larry Seltzer, who says the Obama staffers are naïve if they believe that they use their White House computers as they are accustomed to using their own.

“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,” he writes. “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.”

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