Agencies pay for public distrust in post-Snowden era

In the wake of the Snowden affair, Americans are growing more reluctant to hand over personal information to the government, which hurts legitimate data collection and could drive up costs.

Edward Snowden

The government surveillance efforts unveiled by Edward Snowden have made Americans less trustful, which is beginning to hinder unrelated data collection efforts.

Revelations about data breaches and security gaps have made the public more hesitant about providing sensitive data to federal agencies, and demands for greater security could result in needlessly higher costs, according to attendees at a public/private association forum on Jan. 28.

Federal attendees in group discussions at the ACT-IAC's 2014 Cybersecurity Forum in Washington said former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks have made their jobs collecting and protecting data from the public even more challenging. ACT-IAC is a public/private association that works to improve federal IT.

One attendee said that in light of the Snowden affair that exposed the government's wide surveillance reach, the public may be reluctant to hand over personal information to the government for legitimate uses.

To reassure the public, some attendees said federal agencies collecting and using data to provide public services might put in place excessive security measures, such as encrypting communications links that don't actually transmit private data, resulting in higher costs.

Forum keynote speaker Peter Miller, chief privacy officer at the Federal Trade Commission, recommended that federal agencies charged with collecting and sharing data gathered from the public give some thought to security details long before IT projects begin. Privacy protection, he said, is not a single item on an agency's punch list -- it requires a holistic approach that must be started at the project's planning stages and continued even after the project ends.

Privacy protection by the government has the potential to become a business value for federal agencies, just like it is for innovative private companies that tout their ability to more securely gather and store consumer data. "Building privacy protections can seem clunky, but done right it can be a feature," Miller said.

On that score, federal agencies might be a bit ahead of the game. Projects such as FedRAMP, the White House's Digital Government Strategy and other federal cybersecurity efforts provide common ground for agencies in an increasingly confusing data security environment. Private industry, he said, does not really have a uniform approach and protections can vary widely. "FedRAMP could make it easier [for federal agencies] because they don't have to do everything" when it comes to implementing privacy and security measures, Miller said.

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