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Tech Industry

End of shutdown means government tech workers can get back on the job

They have a backlog of website security and product safety issues to tackle.

Exterior of the US Capitol building on a cloudy June day in 2018.

Lawmakers are poised to send federal employees back to work for at least another three weeks.

Getty Images

US government tech workers will soon be back on the job.

On Friday, President Donald Trump and Democratic lawmakers reached a deal to reopen the federal government for three weeks, ending a 35-day shutdown. The closure, which began on Dec. 22, idled workers at the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, who were forced to push pause on safety reviews of tech products. Other federal workers charged with maintaining government websites couldn't get into the office, allowing scores of security certificates to expire.

Now, workers will be back on the job, at least temporarily. They'll have a lot on their plates.

Before the government can reopen, both houses of Congress must approve a bill authorizing funds, which must then be signed by Trump. When that happens, agencies with tech responsibilities, like the FCC and FDA, can get back to work. The FCC regulates the radio, television and phone industries, while the FDA certifies medical tech devices.

"This is good news for businesses regulated by the FCC because now they can finally move forward with merger approvals, rulemakings, complaint proceedings, and equipment authorizations," said Marc Martin, who heads Perkins Coie's communications industry group.

The FCC furloughed 80 percent of its staff and shut down most of its operations on Jan. 2, when it ran out of funding.

As a result, the agency stopped taking consumer complaints and was unable to review or take any enforcement action on bad actors, like robocallers who violated its regulations. It also suspended any licensing activity for the broadcast, wireless or wireline industries. This meant the agency temporarily put on hold merger reviews, like that for the Sprint-T-Mobile deal, which is pending.

Another major consequence of the shutdown is that the FCC and FDA also suspended the certification of devices, which many in the industry feared would delay the launch of new tech products. Neither agency responded to a request for comment.

The FCC requires most new devices that emit radio frequency energy to be certified to ensure the energy doesn't harm humans or interfere with other products or services that use radio spectrum. While most of the actual testing is outsourced to FCC-authorized companies, the FCC is still required to provide the final sign-off. And because the agency had shutdown its equipment authorization database, these applications couldn't be processed.

The Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade group representing makers of telecom gear, had warned that the launch of 5G networks could be delayed because devices used for these networks wouldn't be able to make it to market.

To deal with this issue, the FCC reactivated the Equipment Authorization System last Friday. This allowed the majority of devices needing certification to be processed. But because the support staff was still furloughed, products that required more "complex" testing and consultation with FCC staff still couldn't get certified.  

Backlogs

Even though the FCC had already started to certify devices, the shutdown has likely caused a backlog for the agency, which it will have to work through, said Ron Quirk, an attorney heading up the connected device practice at Marashlian & Donahue PLLC.  Quirk said he's telling his clients to expect delays.

Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat who served under President Barack Obama, echoed those sentiments.

"This is not a situation where employees walk back in and pick up where they left off a few days before," he said in a blog post this week.

Still, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is eager to get the agency working again. After Trump unveiled the deal on Friday, she tweeted a selfie that included a message saying she's hoping the shutdown will end soon.

"There is work to do -- to extend the reach of broadband, update public safety communications, expand the opportunities of wireless technology," she said in her tweet.

Separately, scores of federal websites will need attention in order to update their security. 

At last count, internet security company Netcraft said 130 security certificates used by government websites had expired during the shutdown. The certificates enable important security features that encrypt information that users send and receive from a website.

The lapsed certificates make it difficult for everyday Americans to reach government sites because browsers often block websites with expired credentials. If those users managed to access such sites, they could be vulnerable because hackers could get in between them and the websites, potentially stealing usernames, passwords, banking information or other sensitive data they entered.

Security:  Stay up-to-date on the latest in breaches, hacks, fixes and all those cybersecurity issues that keep you up at night. 

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