News in Brief

Encryption warning, email assurance, a health IT SIN and more

Will Hurd

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas)

Comp-sci caucus wants FBI to back off on encryption

Two of the most-credentialed techies in Congress are asking FBI Director James Comey not to pursue a plan to allow law enforcement direct access to encrypted communications.

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), chairman of the IT Subcommittee of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of the committee, argued in a letter to Comey that such a plan would weaken the security of commercial products equipped with default encryption, like Apple's iPhone and mobile phones that run the Google Android operating system.

Comey has made several prominent speeches arguing that strong, widely available commercial encryption gives criminals, terrorists and others a safe space in which to operate, outside the reach of lawfully obtained search warrants.

The IT subcommittee held a hearing in late April at which members of both parties expressed skepticism about the practicality of giving federal law enforcement special access to encrypted communications.

Hurd and Lieu, both of whom hold undergraduate computer science degrees, argue that there are no guarantees that universal encryption keys held by law enforcement would not fall into the wrong hands. Also, savvy adversaries could obtain encryption applications from non-U.S. companies that would not fall under the control of any new encryption law.

From a philosophical point of view, Hurd and Lieu argue that legislation along the lines Comey seeks would change the balance between government and the private sector. "There is a difference between private companies assisting law enforcement and the government compelling companies to weaken their products to make investigations easier," they wrote in the letter.

House appropriators seek State Department assurance on records

The Hillary Clinton email story is reverberating in the current appropriations cycle. A policy rider in the House bill to fund the State Department for fiscal 2016 holds up about $66 million from being obligated until the secretary of State certifies in writing that agency records management policy has been updated to comply with new federal records law and directives.

At a minimum, House appropriators want the secretary to certify that employees at all levels "have been directed to ensure that documentation of their official duties is captured, preserved, managed, protected, and accessible in official Government systems," while also making sure that departing employees know that the records they create belong to the department.

Appropriators also want the department to come up with a plan to reduce its backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests, and comply with the recommendations contained in a March 2015 inspector general report on email records.

GSA seeks input on health IT SIN

In the next two weeks, the General Services Administration plans to roll out a request for information asking for agency and industry advice on its plans to attach a special identification number (SIN) for health IT products under its Schedule 70 contracting vehicle.

GSA unveiled a similar SIN for cloud services in April, to better allow federal agency customers to find those services in the massive Schedule 70.

It hopes to do the same for health IT products under the contract by adding a SIN to products that fit the description, said Soundjata Carty, contracting officer in the Office of IT Schedule Programs for the Office of Integrated Technology Services in GSA's Federal Acquisition Service.

The agency also plans to roll out a SIN for cybersecurity products under Schedule 70 later this year.

Navy transitions from Blackberry

The Navy is handing in its Blackberries and switching to Android and Apple devices, according to guidance delivered earlier this month from the Navy Department's CIO.

The Navy Marine Corps Intranet can handle 15,000 users online, and expects that number to double by summer's end.

Apps that can be used over the NMCI with Apple devices include email, calendar, contacts and task lists, the CIO's office said.

Texans making use of FEMA weather app

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Weather Alerts feature on its mobile app has been "another piece of our toolkit" for helping Texans deal with devastating flooding that has claimed the lives of 30 people and forced dozens more to evacuate their homes.

The app allows users to receive weather alerts from the National Weather Service for up to five locations across the country. "You can use it to make sure your friends and family are safe," said FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre.

FEMA says people are more frequently turning to mobile devices to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. As of May 28, more than 19,000 people have signed up for Weather Alerts through the app.

FEMA has set up a recovery center in Texas, and many are applying for federal assistance via the app. There is also a Disaster Reporting feature that allows flood victims to upload photos of the damage to their homes so workers in the field can prioritize recovery efforts.

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