DOD's tough balancing act

The Defense Department has run smack dab into the Internet paradox: How does DOD provide online the kind of information that helps its agencies and the services run more efficiently while keeping offline information that terrorists could use to attack military installations and employees?

Pentagon officials are struggling to strike the appropriate balance for a memo on procedures for maintaining information on DOD World Wide Web sites. But even before that memo has been issued, officials have begun to pull unclassified documents off some of DOD's 1,000 Web sites that they believe could, if combined with other Internet-available information, compromise the security of troops and national defense.

The balancing act is not easy. As Marv Langston, DOD's deputy chief information officer, said, "We don't want to overreact, but we don't want to underreact."

Of course, much of the information on DOD Web sites is of interest only to military personnel, and most of the public could not care less. But if that information is accessed or hacked, it could have devastating results. Last week, top Pentagon officials acknowledged that last year hackers broke into its medical databases and altered troops' blood types, an act that could have had deadly consequences. Information on troops' blood types is of value to DOD's medical establishment and may provide quick access that is important in a national emergency. But that information holds little value for the public at large, and it is vulnerable on the Web.

The sad fact, however, is that the tendency for DOD and other agencies undergoing the same process will be to zealously remove not only information that could be compromised but also information that is helpful to managing the services more efficiently and documents to which the American public should rightfully have access. Exactly what is that information?

That is the hard part. Pentagon officials must do what is necessary to protect the nation from this new enemy— the cyberterrorist. But officials must not let the complexity of the task cloud their judgment, and they certainly must not give in to the temptation to err on the side of secrecy. If the Internet is indeed a tool for democracy, unnecessarily stripping Web sites of valuable data really just ends up serving our enemies.

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