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How Secure is an Email Tip Line for Federal Employees?

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP File Photo

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By Hallie Golden April 17, 2015

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Congressman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on government operations, wants to provide federal whistleblowers -- and simply fed-up feds ---with an anonymous forum to air their workplace grievances.

Meadow encouraged federal employees concerned about their workplaces to drop him a line at TellMark@mail.house.gov. But is an email account really the best platform available?

The most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey of 400,000 federal workers found overall job satisfaction with agency leaders the lowest in five years. 

“From the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we have seen gross employee misconduct that has gone unaddressed, contributing to low morale in the federal workplace,” Meadows said in a statement.

The announcement of the tip line stressed that complaints would remain anonymous. A decade ago, such assurance might have been enough. But today, privacy concerns run rampant.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently called attention to the potential security lapses on a number of agency inspector general websites designed to help employees report waste, fraud or abuse. Twenty-nine of these sites don't currently use Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure connection, which blocks malicious third parties from intercepting connections and accessing potentially sensitive information.

That “raises serious questions regarding the technical competence of the respective inspectors general and their ability to adequately protect sensitive information from cyber threats,” the ACLU wrote in a letter to federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott. 

Email servers can use transport encryption protocols, such as STARTTLS. Websites can use such software as Secure Drop, which is meant specifically for anonymous comments.

Nextgov reached out to Meadows' office to ask about these privacy concerns and the security considerations that went into designing the new email tip line but did not immediately receive a response.

Meadows announced the launch of the email address after Thursday’s hearing on"the Worst Places to Work in the Federal Government."

Now, where should federal employees (or privacy advocates) direct complaints about the complaint system?

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