Justice looking to upgrade foreign lobbyist database

Justice Department's Foreign Agents Registration Unit Web site

A Justice Department database of information on foreign lobbyists is so old that copying the information could lead to a major loss of data, department officials said this month.

Officials expect to finish upgrading the foreign lobbyist database by the end of the year. But until then, they said, the information must be printed at the Foreign Agents Registration Act unit office. Although databases degrade with age, experts said Justice can avoid data loss by keeping information and systems current.

The database's state of decay came to light this month after Center for Public Integrity (CPI) officials requested, under the Freedom of Information Act, that Justice officials electronically copy and store the entire database. But they said doing that could cause the system to crash.

"The current application was not designed for mass export of all stored images, and thus, the information is not readily available in the format requested," Thomas McIntyre, chief of the Freedom of Information/Privacy Act unit at Justice, wrote in response to CPI's request. "As they have experienced substantial problems with the current system, implementing such a request risks a crash that cannot be fixed and could result in a major loss of data which would be devastating."

The database has information on foreign governments and their hired representatives who are lobbying in the United States. It includes data on issues they have lobbied on, whom they are lobbying for and whom they have contacted in the U.S. government.

McIntyre said new technology is expected to be in place by December. Rather than risk a massive crash of the entire database, officials are working to secure the system and make information available electronically, said Justice spokesman Bryan Sierra. Until then, users must print the information page by page.

"They are moving to more of a computerized system so it's done in an easier fashion," Sierra said. "They aren't there yet. [They] can't provide information in certain ways and certain fashions. It is accessible to anybody who wants to do what taxpayers had to do for years — walk into the office and give the very basics of how to get the information."

Bob Williams, a project director at CPI, said department officials should backup the system because it is the only repository for foreign lobbyist information. "They supposedly have document-handling software, and we wanted electronic copies of this stuff because we didn't want to deal with all that paper," Williams said.

Tim Hoechst, senior vice president of technology at Oracle Corp., said information can be protected from such problems by moving it to more modern technology as it becomes available. "If indeed an enterprise has a database they haven't touched in so long, I suppose data in that would physically deteriorate," he said. "But in modern systems, that's not really a problem."

Hoechst said that, in general, the information collected in the past decade has been vast and often gathered faster than can be copied to a new medium. The key is to constantly upgrade the versions of software used for the database and update the information's medium, he added.

"When a system is allowed to stay stagnant for years and years because [officials] are afraid to change it, all of a sudden jumping from 10 years old to modern is too tough to do," he said. "If week-in and week-out it is kept fresh and up-to-date, then it will be fresh and up-to-date."

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