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Monday, January 26, 2009

Does the White House Have Wi-Fi?

By: Chris Dannen

Is the White House more of a museum than a working office? Does it even have WiFi?

MSNBC has reported that on their first day on the job, Obama's White House staffers suffered from downgrades on every front. During the campaign and the transition, Obama's team was a Mac shop; they arrived in the White House to find six-year-old Windows PCs and a mess of disconnected land-line phones. (Windows! The horror!)

Not only that -- staffers were forbidden from accessing outside email accounts or chatting online, too. MSNBC quotes one Obama spokesperson as characterizing the transition as "kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari." Bummer.

However, Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of the blog TechPresident, notes that the President won't be as isolated as we thought. "Obama is keeping his BlackBerry, or at least that's the latest word," he says. Even still, the White House doesn't sound anywhere close to the standards of business 2.0. But what about life 2.0?

Not much better. "They are going to ban instant messaging from the White House," says Rasiej, "so staff don't get caught writing something as casually as if they were speaking it." Putting as little information as possible into digital channels means less is lost in the event of a security breach. A casual attitude towards Internet communication could spell trouble, Rasiej says.

So no IM for Sasha and Malia. What about email? Can the girls and Michelle keep up email correspondence the way they used to?

"Internet Access will be available for the whole family, but under greater security control," Rasiej says. Personal emails from the first lady and the kids are considered private, and won't be subject to the post-Nixon Presidential Records Act, so the girls can feel free to dish to their friends without worrying those emails will ever become public domain.

Luckily, Obama's staff won't be stuck in the dark ages forever. MSNBC says that White House counsel had approved the use of Gmail accounts and personal cell phones, allowing staffers -- many of whom arrived to their new offices to find neither computer nor phone -- to get communications up and running. Many of the other restrictions on White House communications can be lifted or altered with a stroke of the President's pen.

Rasiej says Wi-Fi isn't out of the question, either. "I'm not sure if the first family will have Wi-Fi access, but I don't see why not, under the right security," he theorizes. Staffers won't care either way; White House-issued laptops are reportedly scarce.

It's not known whether the White House currently uses Wi-Fi, but the network security news site Dark Reading used a long-range antenna to scour the White House environs for vulnerable wireless networks in 2007. They found 104 networks and 66 wireless access points in the area, many of them encrypted with easily-hackable WEP passwords -- mostly coffee shops, hotels, and offices. They couldn't trace any of them back to the White House itself, until they access a database that mashes up WAP data with Google maps. They find eight networks coming from inside the building, but none of them visible or accessible to outsiders. (As they note, these could belong to press organizations or other non-governmental entities camping out at the first residence.)

Other buildings in the Capitol were more vulnerable. Sitting in front of the Treasury building, they picked up a EV-DO signal -- a wireless broadband card connected to a laptop. If an employee were to access the Internet with one of those (say, to get to a site that might be restricted from a government PC), and then re-attach the computer to the government network, a virus could easily jump the virtual fence.

Should Obama's administration bring change to the way the White House does its daily business, they'll have to be wary that some of our most-loved Internet conveniences might not be worth the risk. Isn't bureaucracy fun?