Mac laptops present encryption challenge

Like many agencies, the National Institutes of Health owns some Apple Mac laptops in addition to those that run the Microsoft Windows and Linux operating systems. The problem is that the National Institute of Standards and Technology has not yet approved an encryption solution for the Macs as it has for the other two platforms.

As a result, NIH restricted the use of sensitive data on its Mac laptops while its vendor, Check Point, modified its PointSec encryption for the Macs, said John "Jack" Jones, chief information officer at NIH and acting director of its Center for IT. NIH is awaiting NIST's approval of the modified software, he said. NIST evaluates encryption products on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Office of Management and Budget is aware of this gap as agencies try to meet the federal encryption mandate.

"Agencies should consider the potential risk associated with the placement of sensitive information on those laptops against their business needs and ensure there are proper compensating controls in place to protect the information accordingly," said Karen Evans, administrator of e-government and information technology at OMB.

That's the approach NIH officials are taking with their Macs.

"We've been saying as soon as we get ours tested, we probably ought to take the risk that it will be approved and keep track of what we put where," Jones said. "A laptop with encryption that has a flaw in it is safer on average than a laptop with no encryption."

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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