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Eye Opener: No Firefox at Foggy Bottom

By Ed O'Keefe

Eye Opener

Happy Thursday! Just because a federal agency has embraced blogging, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube does not mean the rank-and-file employees have access to the latest tools at their desktop. Witness the State Department, where some employees desperately want access to the Internet browser Firefox. Our corporate siblings at ForeignPolicy.com report that Foggy Bottom computers do not allow users to download it.

Certain employees are so miffed, they brought up the subject at a recent town hall meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Not knowing anything about Firefox (is this why she lost last year?), she passed the question off to Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy, who blamed money and resources.

If The Eye had a nickel for every time he'd heard that from a bureaucrat...

In other Web news, the Department of Homeland Security's newly redesigned Web site gives rank-and-file career employees a prominent role. Refresh on the home page a few times, and you'll see the pictures of various agents and officers rotate through, including "Lucas," a cowboy hat-wearing supervisory border agent and "Harold," a smiley Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deportation officer. (Who knew the guys who deport people could be so friendly?)

DHS has also launched a new YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/ushomelandsecurity. It includes highlights of press conferences, video of Coast Guard missions and information on the protection of U.S. infrastructure.

The online makeovers will continue across the government as the tech-savvy White House continues to hire Web and social media experts, places them at agencies still locked in the dark ages and gets them thinking about how to spread the word online.

But ... Keep an Eye (!) on how agencies use these new online tools: Will they serve as propaganda vehicles that gloss over serious concerns and deficiencies, or instead present a more balanced view of agency work? Stay tuned.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Cabinet and Staff News: Valerie Jarrett, the ultimate Obama insider, profiled. Clinton discusses her relationship with Obama and appeals for release of Burmese human rights activist Suu Kyi. Republicans question Gary Locke on his China emissions stance. Treasury nominates Jeffrey Alan Goldstein, managing director of a private equity shop, for undersecretary for domestic finance. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer now shares his media skills with athletes. Is Robert Gates the best defense secretary ever?

Follow The Federal Eye on Twitter!

Road to Capitol Rooted in Peace Corps: Many lawmakers got their public service start with the international volunteer agency.

Big Cuts Needed at Baghdad Embassy: The government's largest overseas diplomatic mission is significantly overstaffed and needs to be downsized to reflect the reduced American role in the country, according to a new State Department report.

FDA Cautions Public About Electronic Cigarettes: The agency said Wednesday that an analysis of leading brands of electronic cigarettes, a new type of "smokeless" nicotine product, detected carcinogens and a chemical used in antifreeze that is toxic to humans.

Senate Committee Sides With DNI in Bureaucratic Turf War With CIA: The Select Committee on Intelligence asserts that Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, and not CIA Director Leon Panetta, should have ultimate authority to name the top U.S. intelligence delegates overseas.

HHS Seeking Volunteers for Swine Flu Vaccine: The government and vaccine makers need thousands of volunteers, from babies to the elderly.

Wartime Contracting Commission Heads Back to Iraq: A team investigating wartime contracting abuses has begun a 10-day trip to Kuwait and Iraq to examine the Defense Department's plans for transferring or disposing of $3 billion worth of in-theater property and equipment.

Court Allows Challenge to Intern Program to Go Forward: U.S. District Court Judge Richard Roberts ruled in favor of the National Treasury Employees Union, dismissing the government's jurisdictional and procedural objections to the complaint.

By Ed O'Keefe  | July 23, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye Opener  
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Comments

Firefox is certainly wonderful - I haven't used Microsoft's IE at home in years - but as a government IT guy at another agency, I know the barriers to rolling out firefox are pretty high:

1) All our existing web applications would need to be tested and modified to work on both IE and Firefox. Right now, we only test against IE, so this would double the work for our developers.

2) Firefox is harder to patch - you can't allow the web based autopatch most people use at home in an office. The traffic from, say, 1000 pc's all downloading the new version of firefox on the same day would slow our internet connection to a crawl. Even if you could use other methods (which do exist) to patch, it would involve managing, testing and deploying a whole new set of patches - not something taken on lightly.

3) Firefox doesn't integrate as closely with Microsoft's Group Policy Objects - meaning it is much harder, if not impossible, to lock down and standardize across hundreds or thousands of PC's. FISMA and the FDCC require that browsers be locked down and disable many otherwise handy features (password saving, as just one example), which we don't have any way to enforce in Firefox. An open source project called FrontMotion is working on an offshoot of Firefox that has GPO hooks in it, but it is still far from ready for deployment in a government environment, especially one with the security concerns that State has.

So I know it's tempting to bash State brass for seeming to give the idea the blow off, but they're 100% right in this case, and it seems like they've been listening to their IT folks, which is nice for a change.

Posted by: i4647 | July 23, 2009 8:12 AM | Report abuse

The story stated:

DHS has also launched a new YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/ushomelandsecurity. It includes highlights of press conferences, video of Coast Guard missions and information on the protection of U.S. infrastructure.

Employees at U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Service, a DHS component agency, can't access the youtube links listed above. I guess that I'll just have to go home to watch the videos about my employer.

And, yes, I understand at USCIS we don't have the bandwidth to accommodate Youtube usage, but still it seems strange that we can't access info about our agency.

Posted by: RockvilleBear | July 23, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

wait, federal government employees being allowed to blog on the INTERNET.....
am I reading correctly?

so much for state-controlled and sanctioned (even without state or fed law applied)-----
Internet Policies
---for state, city, county, local employees.

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | July 23, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse


policy is such a wonderful word anyways.

specially when it is written with no reference to code or law.
but the policy is still "golden"....

yeah, right.

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | July 23, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

You don't need admin level permission to actually use Firefox on any computer. Far as I know, no computers are that locked down (unless it is a dumb terminal)

If a user can use the CD player on a computer or even use the USB port (I know some agencies lock out the USB port but I have not seen any agency that I know of lock out the CD player) then the user can run Firefox portable.

Download the Firefox Portable version at home, burn it to a CD or copy it to a portable USB drive. Then at work, pop in the CD and run the Firefox portable file. It doesn't need admin permission to simply run.

The only minor drawback from running off a CD is that it will not be able to save paswords and settings (well, it can, but this requires some tweaking...)

So, Firefox can be run without admin access.

As far as the poster that was crying about a "1000" Firefox patch downloads. That is bunk. Firefox can be set to prompt a user to say "yes, check for update". Unless Every user is updating at the same time, there will not be a problem. Even so. Most government internet connections are T-1s or higher speeds...for a 1000 employees, I sure hope it is greater than a T-1 anyway...

Posted by: freethepresses | July 23, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse

State is doing the right thing. Users should not be able to install programs they like.

Posted by: Tupac_Goldstein | July 23, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse


of course they are doing the right thing.
it's in their policy....

uh wait, let me take this pole out of
------forget it....
(rolling)

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | July 23, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

freethepresses - you better believe federal computers are that locked down. PortableApps are wonderful, but won't do you a lot of good.

An FDCC compliant PC, running Windows, will not execute any program that isn't explicitly allowed by a hash rule. Welcome to the wonderful world of GPO - Group Policy Objects.

This is a configuration that is required by FISMA - Agencies can add programs like Firefox (which some do use) if they have policy and procedure in place to make sure the software gets patched, and doesn't put any sensitive information at risk. But any software that hasn't been through such a process and explicitly allowed won't run.

This isn't just a government thing - most large companies have similar restrictions.

It is most useful function is to prevent most viruses from being able to run, but it is also meant to keep non-standard software off the PC.

Posted by: i4647 | July 23, 2009 11:40 PM | Report abuse

Problem is IT thinks their job is to manage users, not computers.

Posted by: jslaff | July 24, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Problem is IT thinks their job is to manage users, not computers.

Posted by: jslaff | July 24, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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