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Government United States Technology

US CTO Tries To Wean the White House Off Floppy Disks 252

schnell writes: MIT grad and former Google exec Megan J. Smith is the third Chief Technical Officer of the United States and the first woman to hold the position created five years ago by President Obama. But, as a New York Times profile points out, while she fights to wean the White House off BlackBerries and floppy disks, and has introduced the President to key technical voices like Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf to weigh in on policy issues, her position is deliberately nebulous and lacking in real authority. The President's United States Digital Service initiative to improve technology government-wide is run by the Office of Management and Budget, and each cabinet department has its own CIO who mandates agency technical standards. Can a position with a direct access to the President but no real decision-making authority make a difference?
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US CTO Tries To Wean the White House Off Floppy Disks

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  • by Mostly a lurker ( 634878 ) on Sunday January 04, 2015 @06:31AM (#48729309)
    The impact she can have depends on the attitude of the President and those around him.
  • by lkcl ( 517947 ) <lkcl@lkcl.net> on Sunday January 04, 2015 @06:52AM (#48729345) Homepage

    wait... floppy disks are a particularly coarse-grained media, meaning that they are quite likely to survive (in storage) for a very long time. also, they don't contain silicon ICs. does anyone remember the great idea of SD Cards with built-in OSes and a WIFI antenna, and how those have been used as spyware tools? likewise USB sticks could have absolutely anything in them. so i don't think it's such a good idea for the whitehouse to move away from floppy disks.

    blackberries on the other hand, i heard a story back in 2007 that the entire email infrastructure at the time ran off of *two* machines (two physical machines). one for the US, one for the rest of the world. i trust that the whitehouse email doesn't go through a single server. that would be... bad.

    • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Sunday January 04, 2015 @07:13AM (#48729391) Journal

      Not really survivable.

      Or more to the point, not any more.

      Back in the day, floppies were amazing. Quite pricy but nuless you slid your finger across the surface (later slid the cover open and did the same), or hacked it apart with scissors, they basically worked and retained data very reliably.

      They were quite expensive.

      Somewhere towards the end of their reign of dominance, more when they started to be pushed out by being too small to be of any use and cheap CD-Rs (not USB back then---it worked like crap) they got super cheap and started to massively suck. Some would work only a few times before conking out.

      • by elgatozorbas ( 783538 ) on Sunday January 04, 2015 @09:09AM (#48729647)

        Back in the day, floppies were amazing [...] they basically worked and retained data very reliably.

        Not by today's standards they didn't. Anything remotely important, I would put on at least two floppies. I still need to experience the first USB stick failure.

        (Okay, okay, USB sticks may fail too, I know, but not nearly as often as floppies).

        • Compared to when?

          IFrom what I remember, the downturn happened sometime in the early mid 90s. Before, floppies were -reliable-. I used floppies a *LOT* more than USB disks since I didn't have a hard disk so I used them for literally everything.

          And failures were rare.

          I've had dead flash disks too, but not nearly as many as floppy failures later on when the price plummeted and the build quality went to crap with it.

        • by Lehk228 ( 705449 )
          . I still need to experience the first USB stick failure.

          I have two old ones I can lend you to help you out on that. one is 128megs the other is a 1 gig.
      • by AK Marc ( 707885 )

        Quite pricy but nuless you slid your finger across the surface (later slid the cover open and did the same), or hacked it apart with scissors, they basically worked and retained data very reliably.

        The disk drives for a C64 would wipe floppies. Take a disk out, put it on top of the drive. Put #2 in, #1 is now unusable. It wasn't every drive, but it was a common problem at the time. I had a friend with one. Also, I've seen a USB left in a pocket survive a wash cycle. It wasn't water or weatherproof. I've never seen a floppy work after being dunked in water, though I hadn't tried that much. Floppies are more fragile than USB drives. At least from my experience.

    • Bad Sectors! (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Floppy disks did not survive in storage or in everyday use. They were an unreliable temporary way to store data. They often developed bad sectors. Those of us around back then will remember people bringing disks to us that they could not longer read files off of, and having to use things like Norton Utilities to try to recover data, which was often as not unsuccessful.

      I had a huge number of floppy disks in storage in the 1990s, and copied them to more reliable media - what I could of them - a lot of them ha

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Pinkfud ( 781828 )
        Yep. I had a huge box of them from the 90s and one day I decided to copy anything useful from them while I still had a computer with a floppy drive. Total waste of time - not a single one was readable. Oddly enough, more than half showed as not even being present at all. No disc in drive. That's a pretty bad failure!
        • Did you check that the drive itself worked? I've seen the drives go bad from long-term disuse, though admittedly that was in an area where the humidity rarely drops below 90% and the ocean is a few feet away, so it was rather hostile to electronics. We used to need to open up the laptops' keyboards and clean all the contacts about every other month. Good luck trying to fix a modern laptop in a similar situation...

        • by Teun ( 17872 )
          Weird, a few months back a client asked for data from the early 90's and I checked around 30 floppies that were 'in storage' like 'not yet thrown out'.

          I was able to read all of them, no failures.

          At the time I was already backing them up to Zip drives and they are also very reliable.

    • blackberries on the other hand, i heard a story back in 2007 that the entire email infrastructure at the time ran off of *two* machines (two physical machines). one for the US, one for the rest of the world. i trust that the whitehouse email doesn't go through a single server. that would be... bad.

      This has nothing to do with the BlackBerry as a solution and everything to do with the infrastructure they put in place to support them. It can be fixed without changing any BlackBerry.

      • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
        And is fixed by the government and any enterprise that runs their own servers. Funny how blackberry is the only company that sells government-proof phones, and is the only one being kept alive by government contracts.
    • Last time I remember using a floppy, I formatted the disk, put some files on it, and walked across the room. The PC I put the floppy into didn't even see that it was formatted. Put the floppy back into the first machine, and sure enough, it was blank. Fuck Floppies.
      • by creimer ( 824291 )
        Keeping a magnet inside your pants pocket helps neither floppy disks nor sperm count.
        • Static magnetic fields have no affect on humans at all, or most other forms of life. Changing ones have to be running at a silly intensity to do anything, though if you crank them up enough you can jam areas of the brain. It's useful in research for safely probing things without having to open the skull.

    • I suspect there is an entire private infrastructure used just for government BB's
  • by MacTO ( 1161105 ) on Sunday January 04, 2015 @06:54AM (#48729357)

    There is a chance that the Whitehouse is using obsolete technologies because that's the way that things were always done. Yet there can be other reasons behind it.

    Consider that floppy diskette. Assuming the OS is properly configured, a disk is a disk. Contrast that to a USB flash drive: is it behaving as a flash drive, or is the firmware causing it to behave as something else? Contrast that to a network connection: properly handled physical media has a clear chain of responsibility, while network connections (even internal ones) may be managed by many more people and have more access points. Yes, there are ways to deal with security in such situations. No, they are not foolproof. That's particularly true with high-stakes institutions like the Whitehouse.

    Another consideration is the providence of the technology. It is bad enough when you have to go through a single vendor (e.g. Blackberry or Microsoft) or are dealing with contractors. Many modern technologies make things worse by being a service. Products become property of the government when purchased. Contractors can be replaced when contracts come up for renewal, or in the intervening period if terms are violated or appropriate clauses are added. Services are a different issue though, and that's exactly what a lot of modern "technologies" are. Does the Whitehouse want to create a situation where another party has control over their data. Even if they could guarantee the security and portability of the data, it could be difficult to find or create a replacement. Businesses take advantage of this difficulty all of the time, and literally milk the government because of it. In most cases it is because of the cost of complying with government regulations. In the case of services, it could simply be because there is no alternative.

    • She complains of having to use a laptop from 2013? WTF? The same goes for the Blackberry, if it's doing it's job - what's the problem that it's not "cutting edge"?

      The problem here isn't the technology the White House is using, the problem is a manager without a clue. (Which shouldn't come as a real surprise, as she doesn't appear to have any actual qualifications for the job other than having worked at Google.)

      • <quote><p>She complains of having to use a laptop from 2013? WTF? The same goes for the Blackberry, if it's doing it's job - what's the problem that it's not "cutting edge"?</p><p>The problem here isn't the technology the White House is using, the problem is a manager without a clue. (Which shouldn't come as a real surprise, as she doesn't appear to have any actual qualifications for the job other than having worked at Google.)</p></quote>

        Is she complaining or the NYT?
        • She is, read again. She even complains her young son asked what it was, about the laptop. I don't know how old is her young son, but I don't see much difference between a 2013 laptop and a 2014 laptop, in particular it is not like 10 years ago when after 18 months your laptop was obsoleted by the new faster CPU on the market. Today, we have reached a plateau, I have an even older laptop than hers and I don't see why I should change for another one, I will not get a better performance or the gain will be so
          • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
            I have a 10 year old laptop that would still be in use (as a kid's play machine) if the hinge didn't break. It looks like any other laptop. Aside from the beige/brown color, a Toshiba from the '90s looks like a modern laptop, even if thick. Not like the Compaq "portables" I had back in school. They really are a WTF compared to today's laptops.
  • Back in 6th form college (16-18 UK education) the only place with fast internet was the college. As such we would turn up with huge sports bags filled with floppies to download big files and the files were often split into how many ever floppies was needed. There were some funny ones where 1gb files were split into hundreds of floppies. Invariably when you joined the file back together one of the floppies would be corrupt. Anyway I'd say that it is MUCH harder to smuggle large amounts of data out using flo
  • by MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Sunday January 04, 2015 @07:47AM (#48729447)

    I have a Z10 running 10.2.X. It's a very nice phone and a good replacement for the piece of garbage my iPhone 4S turned into when I made the mistake of switching to iOS 7. Cost me $200 for a well-designed handset that has user-replaceable batteries, a mini-SD card slot that cheerfully takes a $25 64GB card and runs plenty of Android apps. Personally, I even find the OS to behave much like how I WISE iOS would behave (hint: UI is very similar, but has some nice Androidish features like a file manager that is very well designed).

    What's the argument? Not a lot of apps? That's an argument in its favor with the federal government. Enterprise management is very easy and straight forward for the federal government too. BYOP has absolutely no place in the federal government.

    • What's the argument? Not a lot of apps? That's an argument in its favor with the federal government.

      Have you ever put a Blackberry owner in a room with a Google or iPhone zealot? Certainly the majority of people use their phone and plenty think it's great without trying to convince everyone they need to switch immediately, but this woman comes from Google's Google Glass division, so of course she'll claim that moving anyone towards Google is an 'upgrade'. I'm certainly interested to hear her explain how moving from, arguably, the most secure phone, to the phone with the most malware is an 'upgrade'.

    • by Octorian ( 14086 )

      Remember that many places are still running older devices (e.g. Bold 9900) with their old operating system (OS 7.x or below). This old OS is what everyone continues to point to and make an example of when complaining about the company and their products. Often this is done in an atmosphere of complete denial at the very existence of their newer OS and products.

      I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the Whitehouse has not yet upgraded their devices and infrastructure from BB7 to BB10.

      Some comparable jumps

    • There is an Android emulator for Z10 if you need other apps.

  • by lennier1 ( 264730 ) on Sunday January 04, 2015 @08:04AM (#48729483)

    j/k

    To be fair, it depends on the context. A few years ago I was working for a company whose bank still required the large amount of end-of-month transactions for automated processing to be submitted via a 3.5" disk instead of an encrypted connection. Part of the reason why the company eventually switched to a major bank with a decent infrastructure.

    • by creimer ( 824291 )
      Ten years ago I did a one-night job for IBM where the bank switched from token ring to Ethernet. Never mind that the brand new building was set up for Ethernet. When the branch office moved in, IBM installed 10BASE2 [wikipedia.org] cables along side the Ethernet cables because the bank wasn't ready to transition after using token ring for 20+ years. That was the first and last time I saw token ring in the wilds.
      • A major health insurance company still runs token ring in their headquarters. Instead of putting in conduit they put token ring into the concrete. Their upgrade so far has been wifi but they are still buying token ring cards that costs more than the laptop they connect to.

  • After all, hardly any computers comes with floppy drives anymore ... so unauthorized access is almost completely prevented, better than any software encryption ... :)

    • After all, hardly any computers comes with floppy drives anymore ... so unauthorized access is almost completely prevented, better than any software encryption ... :)

      I consider myself fairly computer competent but the new mother boards have no floppy access, and the one I have a floppy connection on I can't get a floppy to work, not sure if it's me or the floppy drives being treated so badly in the past they just quit working.

      I have lots of 3.5 Amiga floppies (thousands of em) but they take a special floppy as the format is an odd one: 790K not the normal 1.4Meg.

      So safe they are.

      • Just booted up my Otrona Attache (circa 1982) with 64K of RAM, CPM 2.2 and a pair of DSDD floppy drives.

        Still loads up WordStar....

        PIP B: = A:*.*

        Looks like it's time to mow the lawn.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      Security through obscurity? I doubt there are many motivated espionage groups who can't get hold of a Kryoflux [wikipedia.org] controller.

  • There isn't enough money that Uncle Sam could pay me to be the US CTO. Imagine dealing with that squeaky wheel. It's so old and poorly oiled that it's practically seized. Only the most career-masochistic people would want something like that!.
  • Now is probably not a good time to continue to use a medium developed by Sony for storing critical information.
    • IBM I believe where the developers of th8 inch floppy the gradaddy of the 3.5 I can still remember the distinctive *Granch* sound of the old hard sectored display writers
  • by rainer_d ( 115765 )
    Next question?
  • Hopefully the CTO is aspiring to get the white house off of floppy disks for a solid reason beyond just the age of the technology. There is likely a good reason why floppies are still being used and that needs to be taken into mind when trying to replace them with newer technology. After all, we saw an article not that long ago that the nuclear missile sites in the US still use 8 inch floppies, but there is no solid reason to get them away from that.
  • Or maybe just an agency under the supervision of a department....but both would require an act of congress. It is the only way to get authority under a CIO position that can affect the entire government through policy...Frankly it should be done from a security aspect alone.

  • CTO? (Score:4, Funny)

    by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 ) on Sunday January 04, 2015 @12:42PM (#48730505) Homepage Journal

    Isn't "CTO" a corporate term? Since when does our republic have corporate leadership?

    Screw the floppies, I'm more concerned about the basically open announcement that our government is now fascist, in the most literal sense of the word.

  • Lack of trusts and/or connections between networks
    duplication of services between agencies

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