CIA poised to launch expanded Web site

Focus groups tested navigation, usability features

The CIA plans to activate a redesigned and expanded public Web site next Monday, with improved graphics and navigation features tested by focus groups to assure their clarity and usability, agency officials said.

'We worked closely with the agency's four major directorates and independent offices to make the site much more informative and detailed,' said public affairs officer Elizabeth Tascione Licamele.

Tascione Licamele worked for almost exactly a year with Web manager and public affairs officer Mike Stepp as well as contractors and officials from other agency divisions to buttress the site's content and reshape its 'look and feel.'

The new site will provide optional flash multimedia clips to illustrate the agency's functions and missions, Tascione Licamele said during a briefing at the agency's McLean, Va., headquarters.

'We have split the Web site into seven areas,' Tascione Licamele said, to reflect the major categories of information it presents. For example, links to key information such as methods of contacting the CIA, how to apply for employment, how to access research information in the agency's online library and its kids' site appear prominently on the opening page.

The CIA has added new categories of public information to the site to help explain its missions and activities more clearly to its various audiences. For example, a section describing the CIA museum includes photographs of clandestine gadgets, such as a specially-designed cosmetic compact case and a submersible vehicle, that previously were only displayed at agency headquarters.

The museum photographs form part of a virtual tour that provides unprecedented online access to explanations of CIA operations, in line with a 'social contract' doctrine adopted by central intelligence Director General Michael V. Hayden, USAF over the past year.

'Right now we are doing load balancing so the servers will always be up,' Stepp said. The public site uses production servers running Unix and content management servers running Linux, he added.

Members of the public can communicate with the CIA via a comment function, which sends encrypted messages back to the agency. The agency's Web site already uses secure socket layer technology to authenticate that visitors are in fact connected to the CIA site and not a copy. The SSL implementation last July required the CIA to change its address from http://www.cia.gov to https://www.cia.gov, ensured visitors' privacy when browsing pages or submitting information and prevented third-party tampering with data moving between the site and its visitors, the agency said.

The site's designers ' led by officials in its public affairs office ' conducted focus groups in major cities across the nation to test the site's usability and ease of navigation.

Stepp and Tascione Licamele explained that agency officials purposely chose focus group participants with various levels of education to assure the site's clarity and usability.

The site's bona fide visitors generally fall into two categories, officials said: those seeking various types of information and job applicants. The site's home page is designed to help those users navigate quickly to their areas of interest.

The site's kids' area includes materials suitable for use by teachers and students at various levels starting in the elementary grades. The kids' section, mandated by a 1997 government directive to Web managers, also includes some games that illustrate the principles of codebreaking and similar covert work.

'We have plans to upgrade the site's search engine over the coming year,' Stepp said.

The CIA used contractor personnel to help build the Web site, but agency officials emphasized that the 'heavy lifting' involved, including adopting the governance structure, was carried out by agency employees.

'We have gotten huge buy-in and lots and lots of participation [by other parts of the agency],' Stepp said. 'It's been a large effort by a lot of folks in a lot of offices.'

The site maintenance and content management draws on the work of Web managers on the staffs of each of the four major directorates as well as independent offices, officials said.

The CIA site's privacy policy provides the standard protections embedded in its counterparts used by other federal agencies, Stepp said.

'We have a cookies section [in the online privacy policy],' he added, while displaying the new site. 'We don't set any persistent cookies. We do set two session cookies. One is going to be so when you log on to our home page and that Central Intelligence Agency [name] types out, and you hear the typing sound, that will only play once during a session. We don't want to annoy people with it. [Also], our careers section uses [pop-window] survey results [which are voluntary].'

The CIA Web site received an average of 3.7 unique visitors and 24 million page views per month, on average, during 2006, officials said. Those statistics exclude 'visits' by Internet automata such as Web crawlers, worms and similar software. The site also receives hacking attacks about once every second around the clock, all year, they added.

'I think we do provide a large target [for hackers],' Stepp said. 'The agency has taken steps to minimize denial-of-service attacks [and other hacks].'

The CIA fielded the current version of its Web site in 2001, officials said.

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