House enables use of Skype, video teleconferencing for members

The House has finally resolved security concerns regarding the adoption of Internet phone and video teleconferencing services, enabling lawmakers to use both on its networks.

“The House’s Public Wi-Fi network has been enabled to allow members and staff to conduct Skype and ooVoo video teleconference” calls, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), a member of the House Technology Operations Team, wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter circulated Tuesday.

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“Improving constituent communications and increasing transparency has been a top priority for me as Chairman of House Administration,” wrote Lungren. “During a time when Congress must do more with less, utilizing low-cost, real-time communication tools is an effective way to inform and solicit feedback from your constituents.”

Security concerns delayed the House’s adoption of the technology. The breach of the Senate’s computer systems by hacker group Lulz Security earlier this month further highlighted the House’s need for caution.

“There’s a concern about having items broadcast that may be classified in nature,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), head of the House Technology Operations Team, previously told The Hill. “You suddenly put cameras in all these offices, you want to be able to make sure that those can’t be turned on remotely.”

Members had been clamoring for use of such communications technologies for more than a year. In April 2010, House Republicans sent a letter to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) requesting implementation of Skype. Several months later, then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) backed the request.

According to Lungren, the House has negotiated modified license agreements with Skype and ooVoo to maintain the necessary level of information technology security within the network.

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These agreements “will require members, officers, committee chairs, officials and staff to accept House-specific agreements that comply with House Rules and maximize protection for members and staff,” wrote Lungren.

Detailed requirements on how to comply with these agreements have been posted to intranet site HouseNet. Lungren also noted that Skype users will be limited to conducting video teleconferencing sessions on the House’s public Wi-Fi connection to minimize security risks associated with peer-to-peer networking.

The congressional network security team worked closely with Skype engineers to ensure secure usage, according to Staci Pies, director of government and regulatory affairs for Skype in North America.

“Each of the Congressional offices will have access to their own Skype manager account, so one central person in each office can administer the Skype accounts,” wrote Pies in a Skype blog posting Tuesday. “In addition, members of Congress and their staff can personally configure important privacy settings to provide the highest level of security available on Skype, and as always, the Skype software allows people to accept or block a contact, and it never ‘answers’ a call unless instructed to do so by the user.

“Skype enables lawmakers to hold meetings with their constituents who are unable to travel to the Congressional office, participate in virtual town hall meetings when the member is not in her district, and build relationships and collaborate more effectively with other members on important legislative efforts,” added Pies. “Now, members of Congress can reduce travel time and related costs while increasing and improving communications, transparency, and government accountability.”

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Video and audio communication service ooVoo, launched in 2007 and with a current estimated 27 million users worldwide, was in talks with the House for the last several months about bringing the technology to members.

“There was a fairly in-depth review with the House technology operations team,” Brogan Taylor, vice president of subscription and business for ooVoo, told The Hill. “At the end of the day, they reached agreement that it was a secure technology for the House to use.”

Taylor said it was important to the House that data encryption to bolster security was used before ooVoo was enabled.

“I think they really had the best interests for the House and the users and the people they’re meeting with in mind, and they just wanted to make sure … that they were enabling with the right tools to do it,” he added.