Dennis Brack/Newscom

Tech Roundup

Amazon’s advantage, a social State Department, paperless VA.

CIA’s Virus Trouble

The Government Accountability Office found that the CIA gave Amazon an unfair advantage when it agreed to weaken security requirements on a $150 million contract for a massive intelligence community computer cloud it had already awarded to the Web giant.

During post-award negotiations, Amazon asked the CIA to weaken a requirement that all software in the cloud be verifiably free from computer viruses that might let unauthorized people see intelligence data, GAO wrote.

Amazon asked that it only be required to vouch for software it had built itself, not for third party and open source software it planned to include in the system. The CIA agreed, prompting a challenge from IBM, which had also bid on the contract.

If IBM had known in advance that requirement might be loosened, that could have substantially changed both the company’s bid and its competitiveness.

“It is a fundamental principle of government procurement that competition must be conducted on an equal basis,” GAO said. “Offerors must be treated equally and provided with a common basis for the preparation of their proposals.”

GAO recommended that the CIA re-bid the cloud contract and reimburse IBM for the cost of challenging the award. GAO’s bid protest rulings aren’t officially binding but agencies often follow them.  

Computer clouds typically offer cheaper storage space than traditional government data centers and allow agencies to perform more complex computing operations with larger amounts of data.

GAO also upheld another section of IBM’s protest, which claimed the CIA unfairly adjusted the likely price of proposed cloud offerings based on inconsistent standards. 

- Joseph Marks

Twitter Diplomacy

The State Department’s social media presence vastly dwarfs that of other countries using Internet-based tools for public diplomacy efforts, according to a new report.

The 39 U.S. ambassadors with a digital media presence pack a significant punch, based on an analysis by the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute. U.S. ambassadors with Twitter accounts have a combined 538,942 followers and average more than 16,000 followers per account.

“Users of social media who do not engage in substantive, real-time exchanges are unlikely to make their voices heard,” the report says. 

State has pushed to incorporate the latest social media networks in its public diplomacy efforts. Recently, the General Services Administration struck a deal to allow agencies to use the video-sharing service Vine. Many embassies have begun posting videos that show off American culture.

- Kedar Pavgi

Goodbye Paper

In June, the Veterans Affairs Department finished installing its paperless Veterans Benefits Management System in all 56 of its regional offices. VBMS is a key element of plans to eliminate the backlog of disability claims.

“Now that the system is in place, much work continues to be done as we roll out more features and train more users,” says Tommy Sowers, assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs.

“This is a big crossover year for us,” says VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. “We have for decades sat astride rivers of paper. Now we are in the process of turning off paper spigots and turning on electronic ones.”

- Bob Brewin

Oops, About Those Loan Records

The Veterans Affairs Department inadvertently deleted 464,000 home loan files, and Sen. Ron Portman, R-Ohio, wants to know why.

In a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Portman said he learned that the Cleveland regional office deleted almost half a million electronic records relating to loans, grants and applications. “While I understand the VA has taken steps to remedy the situation, the limited communication and delayed incident reporting are particularly concerning,” he said.

Portman had a lot of questions, including whether VA had backup systems and how often backups were performed.

VA spokeswoman Jo Schuda said human error on May 25 accounted for the deletion of the documents and images, which are used by lenders, appraisers and internal staff.

Employees are being retrained to prevent this error in the future, she said. No personal information was compromised.

- Bob Brewin

NEXT STORY: Tech Roundup