This weekly feature surveys top government IT-related news -- involving all levels of government, from the federal to state and local, and international news. It is designed to give readers a primer on current trends and developments affecting the industry's major and interesting players, surveying news headlines from around the world. Washingtonpost.com's Cynthia L. Webb pens the feature. E-mail Cindy Webb Cindy Webb's Daily Filter Column
ACLU's Charlie Mitchell told Newsday that "there were 'a whole lot of questions' about privacy." Mitchell: "What are they going to do with the data and how long are they going to keep it? What happens if the computer system makes a mistake? ...How is that rectified?"
Last week's Government IT Review linked to an opinion piece by San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor that raised concerns about U.S. Visit. If the system works, Gillmor wrote, "we would be wise to ask ourselves a few questions before spending those billions. Such as: Will this just be another deterrent to doing business? And: If we build a surveillance system that can track foreigners so efficiently, how long would it take for the same technology to be used to track American citizens? Various arms of government, notably state drivers licensing agencies at this point, are moving us surely toward a national ID card -- an internal passport." Read his piece here.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center maintains a Web page on U.S. Visit. The organization has urged the government to be more forthcoming in how U.S. privacy statutes will be accommodated by the program.
Accenture appears to be trying to offset such privacy concerns. The company "will create a chief privacy officer because the system will give inspectors unprecedented access to travelers' personal information. Originally conceived as an immigration program, U.S. Visit is now being designed to integrate immigrations databases and to share information about millions of foreigners with a host of federal and state agencies," The Washington Post reported.
William West, a former INS official and current counter-terrorism consultant, wrote a piece published in today's Miami Herald defending U.S. Visit. "Those concerned about privacy issues," he wrote, "should remember that US VISIT deals only with foreign nationals who are staying temporarily. If those applicants don't want to abide by the terms of admission, which includes closer scrutiny, they have the option of simply not coming. U.S. citizens visiting many foreign countries, including Western democracies, face similar controls. Americans should not feel guilty about protecting themselves, and a long-overdue, fully developed US VISIT program will do much to help protect America."
Facial Recognition Face-off
The New York Times ran a feature piece on the promise of biometric facial-recognition technology in its Monday edition. One nugget: The piece noted that the National Institute of Standards and Technology this summer "will stage a competition, challenging vendors to cut error rates on systems it tested in 2002 by at least 90 percent, with the results to be published next year. The prize for top performers -- bragging rights based on impartial tests -- is a valuable marketing tool in an industry filled with small companies."
The Times piece surveys all the privacy concerns and technological challenges, noting that "sellers of the technology have to deal with much skepticism." But there appears to be growing demand from customers: "The total biometrics market this year will reach about $1.2 billion, with face-recognition systems accounting for $144 million, according to projections by the International Biometric Group, a research company in New York. Face-recognition revenues should double next year and climb to more than $800 million by 2008, according to International Biometric."
Who's Watching the E-voting Testers?
The drumbeat of criticism targeting high-tech voting machines continues. In a Wednesday editorial, The San Jose Mercury News blasted the federal government's failure to set standards for e-voting machines. Excerpt: "Congress should fully fund and expand the duties of the Election Assistance Commission, the agency charged with overseeing elections systems. ... The federal government has, by default, turned over the job of testing and approving systems to a handful of privately owned companies called independent testing authorities. The labs have been loosely overseen by a private firm affiliated with an organization of state election officials -- and partly financed by donations from voting machine manufacturers. The labs won't talk about their relationship with the voting manufacturers; those contracts are proprietary. Nor will they discuss their inspection process. The feds should be writing tough voting machine specs and demanding that systems on the market meet them."
In a Sunday news article, Mercury News reporter Elise Ackerman highlighted the fact that the federal government does little to oversee election technology. Excerpt: "Over the years, repeated references to 'federal testing' by election officials have given the impression that the government oversees the certification of touch-screen voting systems. While there are guidelines for the machines, no federal agency has legal authority to enforce them. Instead, state officials rely on what amounts to a privately operated testing system -- a small group of for-profit companies overseen by a private elections group to ensure the integrity of elections increasingly dependent on electronic voting machines."
The New York Times, in its own editorial on Sunday, raised the question of voting machine oversight and testing. "There is a real danger that elections could be stolen by nefarious computer code, or that accidental errors could change an election's outcome. But state officials invariably say that the machines are tested by federally selected laboratories. The League of Women Voters, in a paper dismissing calls for voter-verified paper trails, puts its faith in 'the certification and standards process.' But there is, to begin with, a stunning lack of transparency surrounding this process. Voters have a right to know how voting machine testing is done. Testing companies disagree, routinely denying government officials and the public basic information. Kevin Shelley, the California secretary of state, could not get two companies testing his state's machines to answer even basic questions. One of them, Wyle Laboratories, refused to tell us anything about how it tests, or about its testers' credentials. 'We don't discuss our voting machine work,' said Dan Reeder, a Wyle spokesman. Although they are called independent, these labs are selected and paid by the voting machine companies, not by the government. They can come under enormous pressure to do reviews quickly, and not to find problems, which slow things down and create additional costs."
An article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine argues that the software used to run e-voting machines should follow the open-source model. Author Clive Thompson writes: "One reason it's difficult to trust the voting software of companies like Diebold is that the source code remains a trade secret. A few federally approved software experts are allowed to examine the code and verify that it works as intended, and in some cases, states are allowed to keep a copy in escrow. But the public has no access, and this is troublesome. When the Diebold source code was accidentally posted online last year, a computer-science professor looked at it and found it was dangerously hackable. Diebold may have fixed its bugs, but since the firm won't share the code publicly, there's no way of knowing. Just trust us, the company says."
* CIO Magazine is the latest publication to weigh in on the e-voting debate. The piece breaks down all the issues raised by critics and proponents.
* While a lot of attention has focused on California's e-voting woes, other states are grappling with integrating e-voting machines into the electoral process. An e-voting contract in South Carolina has to be rebid after protests from competing vendors, The Associated Press reported last week. "The contract awarded to Election Systems and Software, which provides more than 74,000 voting systems worldwide, had been challenged by several of the seven losing bidders. At least one complaint said the executive director of the state Election Commission steered the contract to a partner of her former employer. Marci Andino, head of the South Carolina Election Commission, has denied any conflict of interest," the article said.
Other Noteworthy Gov't IT News:
* A computer problem at the United Kingdom's National Air Traffic Control System delayed flights throughout the country today. The system's flight data processing systems failed around 6 a.m. British time. The systems were down "for an hour, after overnight testing of an upgrade. Thousands of passengers have been experiencing delays as airlines work to clear the backlog of flights. Planes had to be grounded at airports including Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Inverness," The Scotsman reported. NATS posted a statement about the problem on its Web site, apologizing for the delay, which it said happened after testing of the flight data processing system in West Drayton. "We would like to reassure air travellers that the safety of flights was not in any way compromised." The agency said it was investigating the problem.
* Uncle Sam can't get enough of data mining. The Central Intelligence Agency's venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, has invested in Spotfire Inc., a Somerville, Mass.-based data analysis firm, The Boston Globe reported. The company "creates software that transforms vast amounts of complex data into images that reveal the relationships between pieces of information. ... The agency has signed an agreement to work with Spotfire on the development of data-visualization tools specially tailored to the needs of the intelligence community. 'In the intelligence community, most of what they look at is chaff,' said Spotfire president Rock Gnatovich. With Spotfire software, the CIA hopes to be able to see at a glance the data that might prevent a future terrorist attack." The same article said Spotfire is the fourth Massachusetts-area data analysis company to get venture funding from In-Q-Tel. The others are: MetaCarta, Endeca Technologies and Basis Technologies, which "makes software that analyzes documents written in multiple languages."
* The federal agency CIO shuffle continues. Ira L. Hobbs, former deputy CIO for the Department of Agriculture, has been appointed chief information officer for the Department of Treasury, effective June 13. "He will oversee the department's $2.6 billion IT portfolio, including IRS' troubled business systems modernization. He replaces Drew Ladner, who left Treasury April 30. Mike Parker, former Treasury deputy CIO, had been acting CIO since Ladner's departure," Washington Technology reported.
E-mail government IT tips, comments and links to cindyDOTwebbATwashingtonpost.com