Federal websites might be unattended or go dark during furloughs

Some website features could remain online automatically, but is that secure?

With a possible government shutdown looming, many questions arose today about the fate of federal websites. Would agency and departmental websites remain live online, would they be maintained and secured, would they go dark, or some combination of those situations?

White House officials have acknowledged that federal websites may go offline during a shutdown. “Many websites are going to be down, many websites are going to be at limited levels in terms of updating information,” Jeff Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said today.

A senior Obama administration official said on April 6 that in event of a shutdown, “most federal websites will not continue to operate. Those that will continue to operate are part of excepted activities, meaning they protect safety of life or property or receive funding from other sources, such as user fees or multi-year appropriations.”

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Excepted activities include those related to law enforcement, health, public safety and national security.

Despite that guidance, analysts today suggested there were many areas of speculation and few details available on what agency Web managers should and shouldn't do regarding website functions during a furlough.

During the last federal shutdown in 1996, federal use of the Web was just beginning to grow and government sites hadn't become a central medium for communication with the public.

“The last time this happened, we did not have to deal with e-government like we do now,” said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer for FedSources.

A large number of federal sites likely fit into the “excepted activity” categories, according to analysts. Many federal sites provide information, education and entertainment, as well as electronic services such as search; queries for information; research support; and applications for housing, farm, student and business loans and veterans educational benefits, most of which likely would not be exempted from the shutdown.

“When a website is an extension of an excepted function, it is likely to continue,” Bjorklund said today.

The properties of the Web and Web servers also are may be a factor in what happens. Although sites can remain live online automatically until a server stops functioning, many of the human interactions underlying the site — including answering questions, providing specialized information, responding to comments on an official blog, posting a new video, and whatever requires human interaction or intervention — would be affected by the shutdown, he said.

“For sites that create a way to connect with the government, suddenly, there will be a backlog,” Bjorklund said.

For example, furloughed employees would not be allowed to update content and publish new content on a site, process applications submitted via the site or respond personally to inquiries delivered through the site, he said.

Security and maintenance also present problems. If a federal site is deemed to be subject to the furlough, and if a site maintenance or cybersecurity problem arises during the furlough, how would it be fixed? Bjorklund asked. One option might be to shut the site down temporarily to protect it from permanent damage, he suggested.

“If you are trying to protect the integrity of your website, and there is no law enforcement or national security or accepted activity involved, you might have to shut it down to protect it,” he said.

Some agencies have said their sites will continue operation. The Small Business Administration would close during a shutdown, but its site would continue operating during a furlough because it is hosted off-site and maintained by a contractor who already has been paid, according to a news article today in Computerworld.

The Veterans Affairs Department’s site also will be kept functioning, and veterans have been told to keep checking the site for information in the event of a shutdown, according to an article in Government Executive magazine today.

Agencies are expected to post notices on their Web home pages about which online features will work and which won't during the shutdown, GovExec said.

The risks of a hacking attack could be heightened against federal sites in a furlough, according to Karen Evans, former administrator for the General Services Administration, who was quoted in an article today by GovInfoSecurity.com.

Alyah Khan and Matthew Weigelt contributed to this story.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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