Editorial: The brave new world

Government policy struggles to keep up with advances in technology

Technology evolves so quickly these days, it can be difficult to keep up. That constant game of catch-up is particularly true for policies — especially government policies — which tend to evolve much more slowly than the next generation of tech capabilities.

That lag, in part, explains the problems agencies have these days with keeping data safe.

The amazing advances in technology have made it possible, in the case of the Veterans Affairs Department, for just about anybody to carry personal data on millions of veterans.

In addition, ever-larger amounts of data are easily accessible online. Many agencies used Social Security numbers for various purposes. At the time, it seemed to make sense. Today, it just doesn’t.

It is a brave new world. And agencies are having to reformulate the way they do business in this brave new world.

One of the areas where they urgently need to change their ways is in the critical connections among mobile data, security and privacy.

In the old days of the all-paper world, of course, agencies would collect as much data as possible during transactions with citizens because the data collection process was complex and costly. Those same obstacles also made it nearly impossible for agencies to get that data from other ones.

Today, it is much easier to acquire data, either because it was collected previously or, increasingly, because another agency has that information in an easy-to-share electronic form.

Privacy concerns are increasingly in the spotlight. Agency executives are much more aware that the more data they collect, the more data they must secure. Privacy advocates have long urged agencies to collect only the data that is really necessary. Besides being the right thing to do from a philosophical perspective, that also makes agency officials’ jobs easier.

Some agencies, however, still reflexively collect personal information with no clear purpose. The Postal Service Web site, for example, continues a nonsensical policy that requires people to register before they can buy stamps.

It remains unclear to us why an organization would require people
to provide that information when it only means they have to secure it.

Experts preach that both privacy and security need to be key considerations at the earliest stages of system development.

In the end, just about everybody knows most of this. Last year, in the wake of the stolen VA laptop, there was a palpable sense of people saying under their breath, “Thank goodness it was them and not us.”

Yet in the past 12 months, data losses have struck just about every agency. If it hasn’t yet, just wait.

There are few issues that have such potential to damage citizens’ view of government. In a way, every agency ought to thank VA and then redouble their efforts to ensure their agency has taken steps to demonstrate they take the issue seriously.


About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.

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