Going Mobile

Technology chiefs take on security challenges as more feds turn to smartphones and tablets.

Doctors at Veterans Affairs Department medical centers will be able to pull up patient records on smartphones and tablets starting in October, and some top VA officials already are using the mobile devices for nonclassified work.

Medical providers at VA's 152 hospitals had been lobbying for years to incorporate mobile devices into their daily rounds, VA Chief Information Officer Roger Baker says, but until recently security experts told him devices such as Apple's iPhone and iPad and Google's Android weren't secure enough for veterans' personal information. With the popularity of the devices growing, though, Baker decided he had to figure out a way to "accept the risk" or VA doctors and residents would figure out how to use them anyway.

Already there had been cases of residents putting patient information on an insecure Web-based calendar.

More than three-quarters of senior executives are using agency-issued smartphones for work, according to a June survey by the Government Business Council, Government Executive Media Group's research division, and about one-third use personal smartphones to conduct agency business. The 148 survey respondents were all high-ranking government officials either at the GS-15 level or in the Senior Executive Service.

Until recently, agency-issued smartphones were overwhelmingly BlackBerrys from Research in Motion, which got a jump on the competition with stringent security features built into the devices before they ever leave the factory. Both Apple and Google have surged onto the market with less secure but more user-friendly products that are increasingly making their way into feds' pockets and forcing agency technology chiefs to adapt or be left behind. The iPhone and Android together controlled about 65 percent of the smartphone market according to a May poll by the Nielsen Co., compared with BlackBerry's 21 percent market share.

About 5 percent of GBC survey respondents said they are using agency-issued tablets and 6 percent are using personal tablet computers for work. The iPad controls a significant majority of the tablet market.

In addition to a larger share of the personal smartphone market, iPhone and Android offer a broader array of crowdsourcing applications that could make government employees more collaborative, efficient and productive if only feds could use them.

Apple's iPad, for instance, could become a digital clipboard for VA doctors, giving them quick access not only to patients' health history, but also an easy link to medical dictionaries and journal articles to aid in diagnoses.

The open source model for iPhone, iPad and Android apps, however, is precisely what makes them less secure. The companies and third parties have developed workarounds, such as installing extra security patches once the devices are in government hands or ensuring sensitive data isn't stored on the device but rather on a secure online cloud network.

Still, bringing more of the devices into government operations heightens the risk of compromising data. When Baker approved the devices at VA, he also OK'd a slightly lower encryption standard for veteran health information, noting that federal IT must be a "pragmatic science."

Other technology chiefs have pledged to follow Baker's lead. Several agencies, including the Interior Department, have launched iPad pilot programs for nonclassified work.

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