Congress May Finally Be Allowed To Use Skype To Talk To Constituents

from the and-these-people-regulate-us dept

Ah, Congress. It's really amazing how the folks in charge of regulating the technology industry basically aren't allowed to use it. Two years ago, we wrote about concerns among some in Congress, that using YouTube violated House rules. Later that year, a slightly misguided flare-up occurred when folks realized that the rules also forbade the use of Twitter (the misguided part was an attempt to turn it into a partisan thing). Eventually these things got sorted out, but basically, it appears that Congressional reps can't use certain new technologies without first getting those technologies approved.

The latest on the list? Skype. Despite having been around much longer than either YouTube or Twitter, apparently Skype is not on the approved list. There's now a push for Skype to be allowed, so that Congressional reps can chat with constituents using the communications tool.

The whole thing seems ridiculous. Did Congress also have to get approval before Representatives were allowed to use the telephone? It's difficult to understand why forward-looking elected officials need to get special permission to try out communication tools that can help them better represent their constituents.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Octothorpe (profile), May 3rd, 2010 @ 4:53am

    Constituents?

    Since when did Oil, Banking, and Automotive company executives discover Skype? We all know that Congressmen represent "big business" and not we the people, who are they trying to fool.

     

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  2.  
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    hahnlawjoe, May 3rd, 2010 @ 5:47am

    Constituents?

    Read the T&Cs when you install Skype. They are allowed to use your PC as a node or super node to pass through if need be. This is why I do not let my law firm use Skype and probably has something to do with why the government won't allow it either. It's called confidentiality; we cannot have government secretes flowing through random computers around the world for that traffic to possibly be sniffed. The license reads; “permission to utilize the processor and bandwidth of your computer for the limited purpose of facilitating the communication between Skype Software users.”

     

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  3.  
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    todd, May 3rd, 2010 @ 6:00am

    Re: Constituents?

    We let Congressmen talk to reporters don't we? Everything they say to them can/will be recorded are shared. They need to have the responsibility to treat Skype the same way, as a non-secure mode of communication.

    Skype is an appropriate method of communication for Town Hall type meetings, but not for classified conversations. If Congressmen discuss classified subjects via Skype they should be disciplined for disclosing classified material, not for using Skype.

    If a Congressman doesn't have the ability to determine what is an appropriate method of communication for a particular topic, I don't want him/her representing me, regardless of political views.

     

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  4.  
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    angry dude, May 3rd, 2010 @ 6:02am

    Mikey is a tech moron

    Little Mikey doesn't know that Skype is banned from all government organizations because of it's known security risks
    Use it all you want at home but do not install it on your government computer or you get fired

     

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  5.  
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    Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile), May 3rd, 2010 @ 6:04am

    Re: Constituents?

    we cannot have government secretes flowing through random computers around the world for that traffic to possibly be sniffed.

    That extra 'e' turns the entire sentence into a very disturbing analogy.

     

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  6.  
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    Steve M, May 3rd, 2010 @ 6:06am

    There might be something in that they need to maintain records of all discussions. I believe they record phone calls and store e-mails for this very reason, so maybe they're worried about how to record Skype for archiving? I don't know if there is such a policy, but I remember a big row about somebody losing a bunch of e-mails a while back.

     

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  7.  
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    Lance (profile), May 3rd, 2010 @ 6:28am

    A combination of reasons

    The biggest reasons for disallowing any form of communication center on two premises.

    1. Can a chain of accountability for communications be maintained? In other words, is there a mechanism for maintaining a copy/recording of the communications made by the representative or senator?

    2. Can the communications channel be secured? How easy is it for the representative/senator to distinguish when the channel is secure?

    Between these two points, a service like Skype might not serve the public interests very well.

     

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  8.  
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    Lance (profile), May 3rd, 2010 @ 6:31am

    Re: A combination of reasons

    My opening sentence is a not quite what I intended, and could be misconstrued to mean that they shouldn't be allowed to communicate at all. I should have said...
    The biggest reasons for disallowing any particular form of communication centers on two premises.

     

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  9.  
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    dave blevins, May 3rd, 2010 @ 6:48am

    Who is it that "gives approval" and is the process in the public domain?

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 3rd, 2010 @ 6:49am

    Re: A combination of reasons

    What about if you are just talking to someone outside the capital building?

    1. Is there a mechanism for copying/recording that? No.

    2. Is that secure? No.

    Seriously. No one is saying they shouldn't be careful. Just that's it is a useful way to communicate info. If someone is technologically incapable enough to spill national secrets over skype, well that secret wasn't going to stay quiet very long anyway.

    You don't ban senators from posting on facebook because they might accidentally mention the 47 trillion dollar super ion beam gun that we just built.

     

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  11.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), May 3rd, 2010 @ 7:28am

    "forward-looking elected officials"

    ROFLMAO ... You really have gotten funny recently ...

     

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  12.  
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    hahnlawjoe, May 3rd, 2010 @ 7:30am

    Re: Constituents?

    Exercising control to not reveal government secrets (spelled right this time) over a Skype conversation is not the issue. The issue is, is the channel through the node secure? In other words, if I’m a senator and I have large bandwidth to the Internet, like the White House does, Skype is probably going to use my PC as a node. Now, little Johnny, the hacker, waits or forces his Skype call to pass through that Senator’s PC. This creates an unsecure tunnel right in to that PC and even the White House, giving little Johnny possible access to any email and / or documents on that machine, not to mention access to other PCs / Servers inside the firewall of the White House.

     

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  13.  
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    chris (profile), May 3rd, 2010 @ 7:47am

    Re: Constituents?

    This is why I do not let my law firm use Skype and probably has something to do with why the government won't allow it either. It's called confidentiality; we cannot have government secretes flowing through random computers around the world for that traffic to possibly be sniffed.

    the DOD has non-classified equipment, denoted by green stickers, and classified equipment, denoted by red stickers.

    they do the same thing with unsecured phones, and secured (cryptographic) phones. in certain circles it's normal for people to work the phrase "this line is unsecured" into the telephone greeting.

     

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  14.  
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    Ryan, May 3rd, 2010 @ 8:00am

    Not Surprising

    This is exactly what you'd expect from bureaucrats in charge of regulating, and exactly why government regulation is almost always such a bad idea. It slows progress, kills innovation, and because some idiot somewhere could misuse it they just ban it for everybody.

     

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  15.  
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    SecurityGeek, May 3rd, 2010 @ 10:17am

    Did they ask a hacker?

    OK, maybe not a hacker but I would hope that before they put the security of our nation at risk that they would have a security expert, preferably one from the private sector, analyze the risk. Most of our illustrious congress is of the generation where less than half are sufficiently savvy to understand the technology, let alone the risk. Changing policy just because they think its cool to talk to the grandkids on Skype at home is hardly justification. It is irresponsible to risk our Country's security on "Cool"! Subject matter experts would be unanimous in condemning unsecured technologies for confidential information.

    Also - What is the "business need" to use Skype? (or youtube, or twitter?) They need to quit messing around and pay attention to their work - that is what we are paying them for!

     

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  16.  
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    nasch (profile), May 3rd, 2010 @ 1:09pm

    Re: Re: Constituents?

    Wouldn't that be the case for any IM client? Any time you have a port open to the outside, there's a possibility of attack. It seems like banning Skype is a head-in-the-sand solution. Any sensitive documents ought to be encrypted anyway (I'm sure this is not the case), so that an attacker could perhaps cause network outage, but would not be able to obtain any information.

    If I had to guess, I would say Skype would not be the worst security problem on a Senator's machine, or even close to the top of the list.

     

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  17.  
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    nasch (profile), May 3rd, 2010 @ 1:13pm

    Re: Did they ask a hacker?

    They need to quit messing around and pay attention to their work - that is what we are paying them for!

    Paying attention to constituents is part of their work, and that is part of what they are trying to do. You're not suggesting congresscritters should not talk to anybody, are you? Or do you assume "twitter" and "skype" mean "messing around", and can't be used for "work"? Because I assure you that is not the case.

    I'll get off your lawn now. ;-)

     

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  18.  
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    bonelyfish, May 4th, 2010 @ 2:02am

    It is just easier to keep a white list than a black list, telling what can do than what can't do. Trust me.

     

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  19.  
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    Peter Parkes (Skype Blogger), May 4th, 2010 @ 9:24am

    Re: Re: Constituents?

    Skype itself cannot be used to create an 'unsecure tunnel' to a computer - there's more information in our security FAQ.

     

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  20.  
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    nasch (profile), May 5th, 2010 @ 7:53am

    Re: Re: Re: Constituents?

    Is Skype secure?

    Yes.


    Oh good, I guess there's nothing to worry about. A company assures us their product is totally secure and has no vulnerabilities. I'm sure they would mention it prominently if there were any legitimate security concerns, right?

    Right?

    Of course since it's closed source we have to decide whether to just take their word for it.

    I'm not saying Skype isn't secure - I don't know. All I'm saying is that whether it's as solid as a bank vault or as flimsy as Swiss cheese, Skype's answer to the security question would be the same. So pointing to your own blog as "evidence" of Skype's security is ridiculous. Maybe that flies with the mainstream media, but people around here are a little smarter.

     

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  21.  
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    Dennis, Sep 14th, 2010 @ 2:37am

    Is Skype worthy?

    There are several fundamental problems at play.

    First, Congress made its own rules under the Privacy Act, Computer Security Act, Computer Matching Act, and the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. Records entrusted to the Federal Government must be kept safe and revealed only when duly authorized.

    Skype uses your computer as a node in a stateless nodal topology, so your bandwidth is shared by any skype user, whether here in the US or China. Congress has the obligation to efficiently use its resources (so they tell us in the Clinger-Cohen Act), and giving away bandwidth to anyone is irresponsible. This means the entire Congressional network is available for anyone wishing to send a Skype session to anyone on the planet, friend or foe.

    Skype submitted its encryption to NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) and was immediately cracked "in a trivial effort". So anything you want to share with your Congressman is shared with potentially anyone you'd prefer NOT to share with. Since Sype is P2P (made by the same company that made Napster), that node share and video/audio stream have dubious protection because of the weak encryption and mesh network that allows exploitation of any weak link of opportunity. Basically, Skype states it uses 256 bit encryption, but actually uses 6 sets of 64 bit encryption (according to NIST) which is far weaker. The argument from another poster regarding a conversation on the Hill steps is not a fair comparison because that person has identity credentials available for checking and the scope of the conversation is limited by the knowledge you are in public and subject to overhearing.

    In this case Congress is acting in the public's best interest. Skype has a very long way to go before earning our trust.

     

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  22.  
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    nasch (profile), Sep 14th, 2010 @ 8:24am

    Re: Is Skype worthy?

    Do you have a reference to the NIST testing?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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