Perils of public access

America had a wake-up call on Sept. 11 about the perils of public access to government information. For decades, conventional wisdom ordained that government agencies should provide ever greater access to ever more information in ever finer detail. The headlong rush of information technology innovations made it possible to aggregate, search and disseminate colossal volumes of information with increasing ease and speed.

Since the 1950s, business, industry, and the academic and research communities have proclaimed their right to access almost all government information created with public funds. Absent compelling counterarguments such as national defense or privacy, they argued that anyone should be able to see, copy and take away for personal use any information held by the government.

Conventional wisdom held that government agencies should simply disseminate their information and not worry about how someone might misuse it.

Sept. 11 changed all that. American society is awakening to the realization that the wonders of contemporary IT and telecommunications have a very dark side.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, government officials, especially in scientific and technical agencies, are scrambling to scrub Web sites of information that might assist terrorists in wreaking further havoc on the United States. The Transportation and Energy departments blocked access to certain sites. The Environmental Protection Agency censored its Web site dealing with the release of toxic chemicals by facilities that manufacture or use the chemicals.

As a consequence of the national tragedy, we may be witnessing a sea change in public opinion about the wisdom of giving the government a free hand to openly dispense the information it holds.

The problem is that no one can yet define that bright line between good and evil public access. What information responsibly informs members of the public within their legal right to hold the government accountable? And what information goes too far, aiding and abetting terrorists? Publishing data about poor security at a chemical plant perhaps makes it easy for terrorists to attack the plant and thus maim and kill. But the same information also provides the basis for citizens living nearby to demand and achieve better plant security.

We have seen the horrors in New York City, Arlington, Va., and southwest Pennsylvania. We are spending millions now on security personnel and technology.

Let us focus more on how the spontaneous heroism of ordinary citizens aboard the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania prevented still greater horrors. Spend some of those millions on turning the government's vast information access machinery toward educating the public about how every man, woman and child can be alert for terrorism and nip the next tragedy in the bud.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@ jtsprehe.com.

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