No smart phone for you! Not yet anyway.

It’s probably safe to say there has never been a new technology that has fired up government workers quite like tablet PCs and smart phones have — or one that has put agency IT departments so squarely behind the curve compared to those eager end users.

Technology officials at the Veterans Affairs Department are engaged in a bit of crowd control as they try to temper employee enthusiasm about using the popular consumer-oriented devices at work. Meanwhile, a team at the National Security Agency is trying to figure out how it can build its own super-secure smart phone so that the agency's super-secretive employees can enjoy some mobile freedom, too.

VA’s much publicized Oct. 1 target date to allow Apple iPad tablets on its networks created some big expectations among the department’s employees, reports Alice Lipowicz on VA CIO Roger Baker said that by talking about the plan, he might have inadvertently caused tens of thousands of employees to believe they would have instant access to VA networks on Oct. 1.

However, only about 1,000 users — Baker among them — are part of the first group using iPads for official business. Others will follow as department officials evaluate “business use cases” for each employee.

But even that small bit of progress is many steps ahead of what NSA’s Mobility Mission Manager Troy Lange can offer the spy agency’s employees, at least for now. Because none of the smart phones so popular with consumers today can meet NSA’s stringent security requirements, Lange is leading a team that is trying to customize a commercial device so that it can handle top-secret information, Tabassum Zakaria reports for Reuters.

"It's moving away from this whole concept between a classified device and an unclassified device," Lange said. "It's the information that is classified. So the intent is how can I gain access to that classified information in a mobile way."

NSA employees currently must use hardwired computers at their desks to access data and applications such as e-mail and calendars. It’s very 20th century, but then again, NSA is not in the business of catering to creature comforts and convenience like it’s some kind of corner coffee shop offering free Wi-Fi.

Numerous blogs and media websites have picked up the story of Lange’s smart phones-for-spooks project. Several readers commenting about the story on Slashdot note the irony of an agency that makes a living monitoring cell phones and other electronic transmissions not being able to enjoy the productivity perks those wireless devices offer.

Others who imply inside knowledge of NSA operations question whether security rules would ever allow the kind of mobile information access that Lange is trying to provide.

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Fri, Oct 14, 2011 DC

I don't see us (other fedal employess) getting iPADs anytime soon. The security on these are poor, and there is a serious lack of the apps we need to do our daily unclassified work. As for the VA "beta teams", I don't put much stock in a group that has no concept of securing PII information, and I have no respect for group that cannot keep track of where our dead soldiers/vets are being burried. Making progress at Arlington ... R U KIDDING ME?

Thu, Oct 13, 2011 Cowboy Joe

I feel kinda' sorry for "ugly baby". Yes these mobile devices ARE primarily for information consumption. In my experience it takes about an order of magnitude more reading to produce writing of any worth. If he spends 10 hours a day banging away at the grandpa box, maybe I should feel bad for his readers, if there are any. NOTE the article indicated NSA was trying to DEVELOP a mobile device WITH appropriate controls.

Thu, Oct 13, 2011

The previous commenter obviouslly hasn't used an iPad for business. I have. Successessfully. So do thousands of provfessionals in and out of government, especially those that have to get out into the field and get sign-offs from stakeholders or customers.

Thu, Oct 13, 2011

There's that ugly baby again. The main reason people really want these devices is because they are "cool". Very little real office work can be done with them. They're basically toys. That's not to say real work can't be done with them, but special apps have to be written that require little input. These are consumption devices, not creation devices. If you bang away at a keyboard 10 hours a day like I do, well, I might as well try to type wearing boxing gloves as use one of these to do my job. Besides, if you really need to check your email and FB status 24x7, you live a sad life. The problems with classified and sensitive data jack up the problems with these devices exponentially. We're looking at the cause of a long string of data breaches if these things ever get in the field without proper controls.

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