House to use Skype for constituent calls, despite security concerns

By Kase Wickman
Tuesday, June 28, 2011 12:12 EDT
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Technology experts for the House of Representatives said in a memo Tuesday that House members will now be able to use the free Internet-based phone and videoconferencing service Skype.

Security concerns had originally stopped the House from allowing use of Skype, logisticians explained to The Hill.

“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, said. “You suddenly put cameras in all these offices, you want to be able to make sure that those can’t be turned on remotely.”

The House has a modified license agreement with Skype and ooVoo, another teleconferencing service, that “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,” according to Lungren.

However, Skype was recently acquired by Microsoft, and was mentioned by the computer giant in 2009 as a program that could work with technology that lets spies easily record communications channeled through the service.

Congressional communications have also been privy to a very recent hack: earlier this month, hacker group LulzSec pried its way into the Senate computer system and released some internal data from the senate.gov server.

Despite these potential vulnerabilities, each congressional office will be outfitted with a Skype account, and individuals are to configure their own privacy settings. The accounts, the letter states, are only to be used over the House public wi-fi system.

Staci Pies, Skype’s director of government and regulatory affairs for North America, wrote a blog post announcing the major partnership.

“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,” she wrote. “Now, members of Congress can reduce travel time and related costs while increasing and improving communications, transparency, and government accountability.”

Some House members, including current presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), have been pushing for the ban on Skype to be lifted for a year, according to CBS News.

“House Republicans are listening to Americans and have asked to use Skype to communicate, but Speaker Pelosi and House Democrats continue to block its use. It’s time that Congress join the hundreds of millions of people worldwide using money-saving communications tools like Skype,” Bachmann wrote in a July 2010 press release.

(h/t: @ethanklapper)

Kase Wickman
Kase Wickman
Kase Wickman is a reporter for Raw Story. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and grew up in Eugene, OR. Her work has been featured in The Boston Globe, Village Voice Media, The Christian Science Monitor, The Houston Chronicle and on NPR, among others. She lives in New York City and tweets from @kasewickman.
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