partial recall

a blog of ideas, links, and musings.

Fair Access, Security, and Innovation

I came across a blog posting today with the title, “Federal Government Discriminates against Mac Users.” The author, a federally funded research professor, was finding difficulty applying for federal funding because he had to use the PureEdge Viewer to submit his application for grant funding to the site. His problem is that he is a Mac user and Macs are only supported if you don’t mind using a pc simulation program such as Virtual PC. I’ve used VPC, but IMHO it has not proven to be a viable solution for Mac users, particularly for something as important as conducting business with the federal government. Some Mac users have previously voiced their concerns at places such as the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP).

So, the question is, why does this federal site, which has the authority for consolidating the business of grant funding among a majority of federal agencies, have the authority to mandate a technology that can only be used by users of one operating system? There are federal mandates such as Section 508 that provide for equal access to web applications for handicapped individuals. Shouldn’t there be an equal access technology policy too?

Back in 2003, the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) issued a report [PDF – 880 KB] in response to the Department of Homeland Security’s naming of Microsoft as the Department’s “primary security provider.” An August 28, 2003 ComputerWorld article states

The contract, awarded June 27, named Microsoft as the “primary technology provider” to the Department of Homeland Security, supplying desktop and server software critical for the agency.

In a letter yesterday to Tom Ridge, the secretary of the DHS, Ed Black, the CEO and president of the Washington-based CCIA, asked the agency to “reconsider” its decision to use Microsoft software inside an agency with critical security needs (download PDF).

From an economic and efficiency standpoint, it would be much easier for the federal government to adopt Microsoft as the defacto standard computing platform. Unfortunately, there are a few problems with this stance:

  1. Security – Much like when one invests in the stock market, diversity is the key. One shouldn’t invest 100% in international stocks. Although these stocks might have a chance for a high return, if they tank you are out of luck. When investing, advisors make sure your portfolio is diversified, as a way to protect yourself if the event that stocks plummet in one part of your portfolio. Similarly, if a corporation or federal agency diversifies its technology portfolio, then it is less likely to experience a fatal security breach.
  2. Innovation – Look at the innovators right now – Apple Computer, Amazon, Google, etc. These companies do not rely on one technology from one company. They innovate, in part, from using diverse technologies (hard and soft).

The federal government needs to seriously look at the technology policies it implements. I think I agree with a recent CIO article calling for a Federal Technology Czar. To combat technology and cybersecurity issues, the government should institute policies that promote technology diversity and should allow citizens to conduct business with the government using any technology available to them.

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