Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Big Government and the Internet

February 2009

By Mike Gould

It's a historic time: we finally have someone in the White House who enthusiastically uses and understands email, and by extension, the Internet itself.

President Clinton was famous for sending exactly two emails, one to test the system and one to astronaut/Senator John Glenn, who received it in orbit on the space shuttle. Dubya wisely refused to use email personally due to the fact that any such messages were subject to subpoena. One could speculate endlessly as to what the content of such non-existent messages would have shown, and if what you are reading was solely a humor column, I would go for it. But I will show great restraint (just this once) and move on.

Can You Hear Me Now?
President Obama is a self-confessed Blackberry ("crackberry") addict. Like thousands of other business and government folk, he relies on his little plastic friend to keep in touch with his friends, family, and associates, and will give it up only after a prolonged fight. Which he is in fact having because his security apparatchiks are insisting that he give it a rest due to the fact that wireless communications are not exactly securable.

Hacks of celebrity phones are commonplace, and having public disclosure of presidential memos would be a Bad Thing. Having the personal phone book of Paris Hilton published all over the web is one thing, but having the private email addresses of everyone that the President knows exposed would be more than an embarrassment. I can see future blogs called "Address books of the Rich and Famous and Political" brimming with juicy, formerly-private information.

So maybe what will happen will be that due to this flap, a serious effort will be mounted to finally secure the ever-increasing use of wireless communications. There are various methods of protecting data and phone conversations, but security always seems to lag efforts to circumvent it. And a President's Blackberry would be an irresistible target. Blackberrys can be made more secure, but they still don't meet government standards for such use.

Fortunately for the President, there is a phone/PDA that has been approved by the NSA for secure government use, the General Dynamics' Sectera Edge (see link below). Obama may have to give up the Blackberry in exchange for this device, which does look and feel much like what he is used to.

Who's In Charge Here?
But even more interesting than the new administration's smartphone problems is the proposed slate of nominees for the various cabinet positions that will be involved with keeping the data flowing in the USA. The big change is a proposed Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the country.

Here's a description of the role from the Obama web site:

"Obama will appoint the nation's first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices."

It is good that the safety of our networks is addressed, as a national effort is needed if we are to hold our own in the growing era of cyber warfare. Securing our borders is one thing, but the Internet ignores national boundaries and enables countries to wage data war from the comfort of their own government buildings.

More from the site:

Barack Obama will protect the openness of the Internet: …[we] strongly support the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet.

Deploy a modern communications infrastructure: …[we] believe we can get true broadband to every community in America. X
Improve America's competitiveness: …[we] will ensure our goods and services are treated fairly in foreign markets, invest in the sciences, and will provide new research grants to the most outstanding early-career researchers in the country.

How this will play out is anyone's guess, but as a technologist who has seen most of the recent political players exhibit varying degrees of ignorance (mostly a lot) about technical matters, this is a breath of fresh air.

As of this writing, the CTO has yet to be named, but optimism abounds in the Internet tech community. The fact that net neutrality is promoted is good news indeed. This refers to the concept that the Internet should be available to all at the same cost, as opposed to specific entities being charged more for traffic to their sites.

The call for universal broadband is also good. It should be remembered that farms were the last to receive electricity in this country; it took the New Deal's Rural Electrification Program of the 1930's to wire up the last outposts of kerosene America. A similar program to bring universal broadband would greatly increase the overall competitiveness of the USA vis--vis the rest of the world, where many people enjoy much cheaper and faster data connections than we do. South Korea is one such place that greatly out-paces the US in Internet ubiquity. As we are the country that invented the 'net, it is a continuing embarrassment that we are subject to slower wires than elsewhere, and this will hopefully address that issue.

In these perilous financial times we need all the tech help we can get, and it is nice to see that we might finally be getting some serious attention paid to an area that can help us all. Anything that improves the functioning of the Internet is something that helps businesses big and small. And now that we have a president who gets spammed, maybe something will be done about that little problem.

Obama site:
http://www.barackobama.com/issues/technology/
Secure smartphones:
http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-10141398-38.html

Mike Gould, is a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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