Fast Company

Why Aren't Government Staffers More Net Savvy?

Congress has been briefed that highly-sensitive government and personal info was leaked into the public domain by unthinking use of file-sharing software. That's terrible. But why the hell aren't Governmental employees more net savvy?

The particular events the congressional panel was told about yesterday relate to the leaks of FBI surveillance footage of a Mafia hit man actively under investigation, lists of citizens who are HIV positive--including identification data--and both motorcade routes and safe-house locations for Laura Bush. These last pieces of information were apparently leaked after they were relevant, but it's still possible that useful tactical information could be gleaned from them.

The leaks all occurred through file-sharing software, according to one person involved in the briefing, Robert Boback, CEO of Tiversa--a company that routinely scours the Internet for leaked data. Boback highlighted the espionage angle by noting that "Other countries know how to access this information and they are accessing this information." And, of course, the fact that sensitive medical data leaked out in a similar way may have catastrophic social consequences for the unfortunate people involved.

It all sounds bad. So bad, that the chairman on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Edolphus Towns, is introducing a bill to ban filesharing software from all government computers. But there's a bigger question here: Why the heck aren't the people working inside the country's power structure way more Internet savvy? Surely, in today's 21st Century networked world it's as important a skill to have as the three Rs?

Let's look at some facts:

  • President Obama has promised a science and Web-savvy administration
  • Internet penetration in the U.S. is already skyrocketing
  • The economic stimulus plan includes a huge boost for rural broadband
  • iTunes--an online shopping vehicle--is the number one music retailer
  • TVs now come with Web-enabled widgets
  • Internet phenomena like Facebook and Twitter are gaining millions of users
  • The government itself has an agenda to place more info online

And yet some officials are so careless with filesharing software like the popular LimeWire service--and, presumably, careless to the extent that they linked the software directly to sensitive data and clicked "share"--that it needs to be banned. Hmmm. Government employees that un-savvy about the wonderful World Wide Web makes me wonder exactly what other net-related mistakes are going on in the corridors of power. Perhaps Edolphus Town's efforts would be better redirected towards making sure every government employee, national or local, is as educated and aware to the power and pitfalls of the 'net as the average teenager is nowadays?

[via Washington Post]

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5 Comments

  • Andrew Eriksen

    The leaks occurred "after they were relevant", you would think that our government would be a little more aware of the internet how vulnerable most data really is. I have a fractional co2 laser directory site and have had over 15 potential serious attacks on my server in the last 6 months. There are some serious hackers out there and everyone should take notice. A brute force attack on an advanced server will break most of our banking codes within a day or two.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Barry. A few government folks I've met are very security conscious, and rightly so. It's particularly true for those working in security/defense--in these roles everyone is briefed on security matters from good computer behavior up to personal safety.

  • Barry Dennis

    Maybe make all desktops "slaves" to managed servers that don't allow software that operates out of security restrictions.
    It really is too much to expect government employees to be security conscious; bureaucracies don't think that way.
    The only time a bureaucracy get security conscious is when there's a leak of something they screwed up and don't want known, or when an employee wants get even or cause embarrassment. Whistle blowers unite!

  • Kit Eaton

    @Freddy. Yup--as a huge organization, government will be bound to leak a little. But, really, filesharing? That's basic basic net savviness. :)

  • Freddy Nager

    I would argue that any large organization is prone to leaks and errors. Consider how easily Twitter was hacked (one employee's password was "password"), and all Twitter employees are arguably web savvy. Business secrets are leaked and stolen all the time, but unless they're Apple's secrets, they don't get publicized. The government is just the largest of all organizations in the U.S. when you combine all the various departments; hence, more problems and more stories.

    Granted, those dealing with sensitive information should be, well, more sensitive.