Set Asides

Commerce delays issuing encryption export rules

The Commerce Department has delayed until Jan. 14 issuing new rules to ease restrictions on exporting encryption technology so that officials can review the changes.

Software makers have called for lifting almost all restrictions on overseas sales of computer software and hardware that scrambles information so that only the intended recipients can read it. However, the Justice and Defense departments have opposed widespread sales of encryption technology, contending that the technology would help money launderers, drug dealers and spies.

But encryption is considered essential for growth in electronic commerce. It would ensure the privacy of information transmitted via the Internet, such as contract contents and credit card data.

Draft rules issued by the administration in November were widely denounced by software manufacturers and privacy proponents as too restrictive and complicated. Since then, Commerce has made so many changes that the department wanted to take more time to look over the final wording of the regulations, according to a statement.

"Given the significant changes since the Nov. 19 draft, we believe there would be real benefit to another round of review and consultations before we issue the regulation," said Commerce undersecretary William Reinsch.

Rather than complaining about the delay, many in the private sector are taking this as encouragement that the administration is taking their concerns seriously.

"Hopefully, the delay means the administration is addressing the concerns of industry and the public-interest groups," said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. Historically, final rules have been better than first drafts, he said.

Feds prepare Year 2000 contingency plans

Despite confidence that nearly all the federal government's computer systems are ready for the year-end date rollover, computer experts plan to staff an around-the-clock crisis center until mid-January, the government's top Year 2000 official said last week.

The Information Coordination Center, located a few blocks from the White House, will monitor critical government and private-sector computer systems and provide assistance if the systems encounter problems caused by the Year 2000 computer glitch.

It could take days, weeks or even months for some computer problems caused by the Year 2000 date change to show up, warned John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion.

Disaster at the stroke of midnight, however, is unlikely, Koskinen said. "We do not expect to see any major national failures [as] a result of the date change," Koskinen said. "Systems supporting key parts of the infrastructure - electric power grids, telecommunications and financial networks, air traffic control and other major transportation systems - are well-prepared for the Year 2000," he said during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

DOE beefs up polygraph tests for employees

The Energy Department has issued new counterintelligence regulations that call for polygraph examinations for at least 800 employees - including high-level political appointees - who have access to highly classified information and computer systems.

The new rules, issued last week, follow the Justice Department's Dec. 10 indictment of a former DOE employee, Wen Ho Lee. He was indicted on 59 counts of altering, concealing and removing sensitive data from classified computer systems at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, with the alleged intent "to injure the United States and with the intent to secure an advantage to a foreign nation."

In a memorandum sent this week to all DOE heads, DOE Secretary Bill Richardson said the questions that will be asked as part of DOE's new Counterintelligence Polygraph Implementation Plan will be limited to "narrowly focused topics of espionage, sabotage, terrorism, intentional unauthorized disclosure of classified information...and deliberate damage or malicious misuse of a U.S. government or defense system."

Of the 800 DOE and contractor personnel targeted by the new polygraph rule, many will come from offices involved in cybersecurity. For example, positions within the Office of Independent Oversight and Performance Assurance and the Office of Safeguards and Security will test personnel who are regularly engaged in cybersecurity assessments and digital file transfer operations, according to the memorandum.

Snail mail most-used method to contact lawmakers

The ease and speed of e-mail has made it the second most popular way for Internet users to contact members of Congress, although regular old snail mail remains the most commonly used method of communicating with lawmakers - even for Internet users, according to an online survey.

Forty percent of the Internet users who were asked about their e-mail usage in the survey said they had contacted their senators or representatives by e-mail. Forty-five percent said they had contacted their lawmakers by letter.

Juno Online Services Inc., an Internet and e-mail service provider, and e-advocates, an Internet advocacy consulting firm, conducted the survey from Nov. 5 through Dec. 7.

The poll was intended to help assess the importance of the Internet in citizen participation in the political process.

Fifty-eight percent of those polled said they would use e-mail in the future if they wanted to contact their representatives. Only 25 percent said they would prefer to mail a letter.

Telephones and fax machines proved to be far less popular. Only 11 percent of respondents said they would phone, and 2 percent said they would fax their members of Congress. Three percent said they would visit their members of Congress in person on Capitol Hill.

The responses reflect the preferences of a narrow but expanding segment of American society. "All [the respondents] are wired, and all are Juno subscribers," said Roger Stone, director of Juno Advocacy Network, Juno's public-interest and political-advertising division, based in Washington, D.C. "They tend to be voters," he added. Only 28 percent indicated that they had never tried to contact their members of Congress.

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