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Homeland security and government websites


The RAND Corporation, a research and policy institute/thinktank, has issued a report called "Mapping the Risks: Assessing the Homeland Security Implications of Publicly Available Geospatial Information". Part of the report deals with the removal of information from government websites following the 9/11 attacks. If you're not inclined to read the whole thing, there's also a research brief entitled, "America's Publicly Available Geospatial Information: Does It Pose a Homeland Security Risk?".

According to the Associated Press article (LA Times version, registration required here; Yahoo! version here) on the research study, RAND researchers found that from over 600 federal websites featuring geospatial data, only 4 sites they believed to have such sensitive, unique information that could be put to harmful use by potential terrorists and as such warranted reclassification and removal from the Open Web. Unique is apparently an important qualifier: the study reports that in order to launch an effective attack, terrorists would need to more detailed, more current information than what is/was present on most of the government websites they evaluated, and even such information, if removed from .gov sites, is still accessible through other legal means.

The study also focuses on sites with restricted information where the alleged slight benefit towards security is far outweighted by major societal costs. From the research brief:

Federal geospatial information provides many benefits to a wide range of users, including other federal agencies, state and local governments, private firms, nongovernmental organizations, and community groups. Furthermore, people who work, recreate, or live near a critical site need the geospatial information about the site to access or to avoid the location when conducting their activities. The boating, fishing, and oil and gas industries, for example, need accurate nautical charts. Emergency responders and planners need up-to-date geospatial data to provide services in the event of a natural disaster, accident, or terrorist incident. Public availability of such geospatial information is often required by federal, state, or local laws. In addition, broad access to geospatial data and information is integral to increasing productivity, reducing private- and public-sector costs of doing business, facilitating knowledge sharing, and enhancing U.S. international competitiveness.

Although the societal benefits of particular geospatial information are often difficult to quantify, decisionmakers who are responsible for determining what information should be publicly accessible should seek to identify the range of potential information users and assess the opportunity costs that limiting access would impose on users.

The brief and the report conclude with a proposal for developing an analytical framework to aid in evaluating potentially sensitive information for appropriate levels of public access.